They don't call it Paradise for nothing. High atop some of Southern California's tallest ocean bluffs, Paradise Cove cradles some of the most sought-after real estate in Malibu.
Dorothy and Harry Kissel saw the place 26 years ago and, when 80 acres that included some of the cove's best beachfront became available, they couldn't resist buying.
The Kissels opened a seaside restaurant called the Sand Castle, and, on the hunch that the surrounding acreage would someday be worth a fortune, turned most of the land into one of the most idyllic mobile home parks to be found anywhere.
Now, in her 70s and a widow, Dorothy Kissel wants to sell paradise.
But in a community where even small real estate transactions often come under scrutiny for their impact on the fragile--to say nothing of expensive--Malibu coastline, the prospective sale of Paradise Cove has stirred more than its share of attention.
Several major developers, including at least one with designs to build a luxury resort hotel there, are said to be eagerly looking forward to the chance to buy the property.
Although such use would require the approval of both the county and the state Coastal Commission, not to mention the approval of a city government should Malibu achieve cityhood in the near future, some observers say the natural beauty and seclusion of the spot might make the attempt to develop Paradise Cove irresistible.
"I think a hotelier would drool at the prospect of getting his hands on the place," said a Malibu real estate broker, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
Local environmentalists have launched a campaign for continued easy public access to Paradise Cove's unspoiled beach, including its private pier, regardless of whom the buyer turns out to be.
Meanwhile, residents of the mobile home park, many of whom have leased the ground beneath their homes for years, have announced that they plan to pool their resources to try to buy the property.
Such activity is focused on a property that isn't expected to go on the market until later this week, and for which there is no established asking price.
In fact, officials of the real estate investment firm that is preparing to list the mobile home park have declined to discuss the matter, saying they prefer a low-profile approach in attempting to sell the property.
"We really don't need the publicity to attract the kind of client who is able to bid on a property of this kind," said David Ash, vice president of Eastdil Realty Inc. of Century City.
Of the strategy not to set an asking price for the property, one real estate broker, who asked not to be identified, said: "They think they've got something so hot that they're just going to put it out there for bid and hope some rich investor will come along and offer more than it's worth."
Although speculation about the value of the property among real estate appraisers, including some close to the residents, has ranged from $70 million to $130 million, the residents insist they are not deterred.
Since receiving notices from Kissel last November of her intention to sell, the residents have formed their own acquisition group, hired a consultant, and say they are ready to enter the fray.
"We think we can do it," said Brad Johanson, president of the Paradise Cove Acquisition Assn., which includes all but a handful of the park's more than 250 residents.
Sue Lofton, a lawyer whose San Clemente consulting firm specializes in helping tenants of mobile home parks acquire the parks when they come on the market, also says the residents' chances are good.
"They can do it," she said. "Paradise Cove is certainly not your typical mobile home park, but even in the price range that is being speculated, we believe our clients are capable of putting together an offer that is acceptable."
The group has won the moral support of local environmentalists, concerned that public access to one of the area's most attractive beaches could be jeopardized if the property ends up in the hands of a private developer.
Half a mile off Pacific Coast Highway and hidden by rugged bluffs, the beach at Paradise Cove, long popular with surfers, is almost impossible to get to except by the private-access road that stretches across the Kissel property.
For years, beach-goers not patronizing the restaurant have paid a fee to park in a beachside parking lot, and Kissel has made the pier--which was partially destroyed by a 1983 storm--available to the public.
"We want to make sure that Paradise Cove is held in perpetuity for the entire public," said Ellen Stern Harris, executive director of the Fund for the Environment. "We don't want it to become an enclave for private developers."
She and others say they would like any new owner to place part of the property, including the road and pier, into a public trust as a way of ensuring access. Such a scheme also could result in a property tax savings to the owner, she said. The resident group has shown some interest in the idea, Harris said.
"At this point, however, it's very premature to even speculate on who may end up with the property. We're just hoping that something imaginative can be worked out," Harris said.
For her part, Kissel said she has no objection to selling the property to the residents "as long as they can afford it." And Lofton, the residents' consultant, said Eastdil representatives "have been most cooperative and courteous toward us."
Longtime resident Dennis Magee offered another view.
"As with any prime oceanfront property," he said, "it's almost sure to come down to who has the most money to pay for it."