In Malibu, a skirmish over lines in the sand

The bulldozing of California beachfront rekindles an old clash between beachcombers and homeowners.

The head of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) calls it "the most egregious, arrogant, inexplicable behavior ever" by homeowners on the California beaches.

"They basically stole the public beach ... leaving the public to walk in the water," says Peter Douglas, the CCC's executive director. "It's incomprehensible."

The president of the local homeowners association counters that residents "were just trying to repair and restore damage from heavy winter storms."

Whatever the rationale, a new high- profile confrontation over who owns which beach has erupted just weeks after Tinseltown titan David Geffen gave up his world-famous battle to keep the masses off the sand in front of his Malibu house. Just two weeks ago, local beach-access activists celebrated the opening of a nine-foot-wide public pathway to the ocean next to Mr. Geffen's property on Carbon Beach - ending several years of litigation.

Now, local and far-flung beachcombers are calling authorities, shocked that homeowners on Broad Beach, just miles away, have bulldozed 1.1 miles of beachfront sand off the public stretch, pushing it toward their homes.

"This is the ultimate in [the] Malibu-locals-only mentality, gone berserk," says Susie Duff, a two-decade Malibu resident. She and others say there has long been a social rift between some wealthy beachfront property owners who think they own the sand and others in this enclave of 13,000 who are happy to share.

"There has been a despicable undercurrent of war about this issue here for years, and this is just more evidence that some haven't learned a thing from the Geffen experience - [that] the beach is owned by the public," says Ms. Duff.

To many homeowners, though, the bulldozing is a simple matter of keeping their beaches intact. "There are drains placed improvidently by local and state government which dump huge amounts of storm water," says Marshall Grossman, head of the Trancas Property Owners Association. "They were eroding our dunes."

Lines in the sand

The current Malibu beach battle is important, legal analysts say - both within the state where dozens of similar cases are pending in courts, and beyond, to states from Massachusetts to Hawaii - both in setting precedent and raising public awareness. Activists say property owners try to intimidate the public with "keep off" signs, video cameras, security guards, and more. Homeowners say the beach visitors abuse their rights, knowingly or not, by trespassing, littering, and worse.

By California law, beaches are strictly public from the "mean high-tide line" (MHTL) to the water. (The line is calculated by averaging high-tide water marks surveyed throughout the year.)

But because the line is nebulous - such calculations are kept only by officials far from the beach - visitors and property owners are constantly at odds, fueling battles in which residents draw their own lines in the sand and hire security personnel to shoo beachcombers away.

The current eruption at Broad Beach is certain to bring further litigation, say legal observers. Already, a back-and-forth has ensued over whether or not the local homeowners had a right to push sand toward their own homes - and if they should have sought permission first.

"All we're trying to do is repair the beach and make it better for everyone," says Winifred Lumsden, a spokeswoman for the property-owners association. She claims the residents got a formal OK from a county beach and harbor official.

But several experts say no such authority exists within the county, and that the permits required for bulldozers to access to the beach clearly state that any beach work requires CCC approval.

"Given the stories of [the homeowner association's] other tactics to prevent beachgoers from getting on the public side of the mean high-tide line, their claim to not know they needed state approval does not sound plausible to me," says Susan Tellem, an eight-year Malibu resident.

'The truth is somewhere in between'

To some, officials' interruption of the sand-shifting task has left a landscape as unsightly as litter on the beach. "It's a mess now because they left [the sand] in a big pile," says Diana Klein who owns two beach houses and is angry because a six-foot-high pile of sand blocks her own access to the water. When CCC officials were notified that bulldozers were moving the sand, they issued immediate "cease and desist" orders. "If they would have left us alone, we would have finished the task and no one would have been the wiser."

It's unclear at this point which homeowners hired and supervised the local bulldozing crew. The CCC is planning an investigation, and homeowners spokesman Mr. Grossman promises full reparations.

"I've been watching these kinds of skirmishes for decades," says Arnold York, editor of the Malibu Times, "and I can tell you that both sides are probably doing a bit of puffed-up posturing over this. The truth is somewhere in between."

But in the meantime, say some, the environment has suffered. Local biologists have already calculated that the bulldozers destroyed grunion eggs at a crucial time in their spawning cycle. And officials are afraid to order a quick push of the sand back toward the water because of possible damage to delicate plants on the landward side of the dunes.

"I think this is the symptom of a deeper disorder of our society's increasing separation from nature," says Anne Buxie, a 30-year resident who lives in the hills high above the beach. "We get all caught up in whether the land is this person's or that person's and we lose respect for the creatures and wildlife in the middle."

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