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Balance on the Beach

May 25, 1986

One of the most painful conflicts in American life occurs when the right of private property clashes with the public interest. This conflict has been particularly acute and widespread in California since 1972, when the voters approved a sweeping coastal-protection law, which was revised and renewed by the Legislature four years later.

An especially nettlesome dispute regarding the law, and the authority of the California Coastal Commission, has now been resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the people. The outcome is understandably distressing to the affected homeowners in an exclusive Ventura County beachfront community, but it is the proper one. All Californians, and others who visit our coast, will benefit.

For some time it has been the policy of the Coastal Commission that when private landowners along the coast alter their property they must then permit public access to the beachfront that previously was considered private. In the case of the Whalers' Village Club in Ventura County the alterations involved the construction of sea walls and other barriers to protect the homes from erosion caused by storm-driven surf in 1980. This was a sort of no-win situation for homeowners: Build a wall or lose their homes.

Additionally, the commission contends that the erection of such barriers creates a backwash effect resulting in erosion of adjacent public beaches, thus depriving the public of the right of access to state tidelands.

In getting retroactive approval for the construction, the property owners were told that they no longer could prevent the public from using the beaches that previously had been the exclusive terrain of village residents. The decision will affect not just Whalers' Village Club but also a number of other exclusive beach housing enclaves. The reaction of the landowners is understandable. Don Paul, a Whalers' Village resident, called the requirement "the most un-American thing I've ever seen." That might be true if the right of private property was absolute. But it is not, just as the right to own and carry firearms is not absolute.

One could argue, in fact, that the ruling is wholly American, that the right of the entire public to enjoy one of its greatest natural resources supersedes narrower interests. The Supreme Court decision is consistent with public policy in recent years. State and local governments along the East and Gulf coasts have adopted laws forbidding the construction of sea walls and other facilities. In the barrier-islands legislation of 1982, supported by the Reagan Administration, Congress put a halt to federal spending for public works that would encourage or protect development on unstable beachfront property that one day almost certainly would succumb to the forces of nature.

The public can cheer the decision in the California case, but beachgoers must also accept the responsibility that goes with it. Enjoy this expanded access to the beach, yes, but also respect the rights and privacy of the nearby homeowners.

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