Miracle on a Malibu beach

Something extraordinary just happened in Malibu on Carbon Beach. Amidst the traditional preparations for summer--the sign-posting, the guard-hiring, and the state-suing--a homeowner has voluntarily opened a public accessway next to his house. Yes, voluntarily.

Are we about to hear the sound of gates unlocking across Malibu? That remains slightly more likely than, say, global re-cooling. To begin with, the homeowner actually lives in Connecticut (though the public need not be any less thankful). Still, now is an excellent time to celebrate the very real progress toward establishing public access to these beaches. Not all homeowners may be ready to fling open their gates. But hasn't the time come to stop fighting so hard not to?

In California, all beaches are public below the mean high tide line (working definition: the wet sand), and state laws clearly require beachfront communities to maximize public access. The treatment of the 20 developed miles of beaches in Malibu as a private riviera--a full quarter of the L.A. County coastline--has long constituted one of the most egregious violations of public space in the Los Angeles area.

However, in the last five years, state agencies have settled every single major legal battle over Malibu beach access in the public's favor. In the last three years, the state and the nonprofit Access For All have opened four new accessways. They've opened dozens more public easements on the dry sand. And exactly two years ago--in a highly publicized victory that even everyone in Bhutan seems to have heard about--entertainment-industry mogul David Geffen gave up his 22-year battle and agreed to open both the accessway next to his Carbon Beach compound and the dry-sand easements on the beach in front of it.

So isn't it time to stop fighting, perhaps? Surely, the loss at the Geffen estate argues that no amount of money or influence--or laudable civic-mindedness where one does not live in the L.A. area--will prevent the public access guaranteed by the state constitution and the California Coastal Act. Why then, just two days after Geffen opened his gate, did homeowners on Broad Beach bulldoze tons of sand out of the tidelands, and build an 8-foot-high dune that cut off public access at high tide?--and then post bright new "Please Respect Private Property" signs atop the land they pilfered from the public beach?

The battle on Broad Beach? Lost: the Coastal Commission ordered the homeowners to de-reengineer the coastline. The several ongoing lawsuits to stop new accessways? Dim prospects.

So why fight access that is becoming increasingly inevitable? As if to emphasize the point, the newly minted Carbon Beach accessway happens to run right next to Eli Broad's beachfront pad. In 2000, über-civic-leader Broad (truly--I'm not being sarcastic) and two fellow Carbon Beach-ers bought and donated a $1-million parcel on La Costa Beach--a different Malibu beach--for public use. Which was a good deed, but also, the donation won them exemptions from the state requirement that they make 20-percent of the ocean visible from the street when they enlarged their beach houses. In other words, since the time that these three homeowners paid handsomely to block the view of the beach, two new accessways have opened on Carbon Beach--aka Billionaires Beach--and a third is in litigation.

Meanwhile, just upcoast on the same beach, Geffen has turned out to be an excellent neighbor. And the public beachgoers--as the great majority of us do on all these beaches--have basically been treating both public and private lands with appropriate respect. No one has stormed the decks. The beach looks clean, and the birds and dolphins still like the place fine. The sky hasn't fallen. People are just walking and sitting on the beach. Sharing adjacent public lands with the rest of the public may be inevitable. However, it's also really not that bad.

Creating one's own public accessway is just one option, of course. But yes, definitely, the time has come at least to stop blocking public access so actively--and to stop waging battles that have become more and more pointless. So please no more signs that say "Private Beach"--or "Right to Pass by Permission" or "No Stopping." No fake but official-looking "No Parking" signs on the PCH near accessways, and no orange cones in public parking spots. laoZuma.jpgLikewise, no mailboxes, trees, and lawns in the shoulder for public parking. Also, no "Private Street" signs on public roads, and no private locks on public gates. No special tags on dog collars so that all the neighbors will know which illegal dogs belong to the beachfront homeowners. No private security guards at public entrances to tell the rest of the public what they can and cannot do on public land. And no investing inordinate sums of money in lawsuits to keep people from using the public beach, which is one of the few truly great public spaces in Los Angeles.

Then, maybe next Memorial Day, we can talk about unlocking the gates in unison. As the Carbon Beach homeowner has said, "All I did is open a door." It's easy.

Or not. But in the meantime, as we all start to enjoy the new summer beach season--"Please Respect Public Property."

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