At the oceanfront home of producer David Geffen, the state required a public walkway to a stretch of Malibu beach walled off by development. Through government inaction, the path has remained behind a locked gate for more than a decade.
It is the same story a few miles away at the multimillion-dollar estate of former "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark. Almost 20 years after it was proposed, no walk exists from Pacific Coast Highway to the sea.
At another potential access point, a tennis court and 12-foot wall block the way to Carbon Beach. Azure water and white sand beckon at Latigo Shores, but the stairway down the bluff is padlocked. Past Point Dume, a motorized patrol hired by wealthy homeowners herds people away from plots of sand earmarked for public use.
From Malibu's secluded beaches to Mendocino's rugged bluffs, some of the most scenic stretches of California coast remain off limits to strollers, sunbathers, surfers and other beach lovers despite laws to enhance recreational opportunities along the ocean.
For two decades, state coastal planners have required hundreds of property owners to offer strips of land for public access as a condition of building on or near the beach. But the vast majority of these hard-won paths to public beaches along the Pacific are still closed because the state and local governments have been slow to take responsibility for them.
Of these 1,269 potential walkways, trails and viewpoints along the state's 1,100-mile coastline, only one in five has been secured for public use, and the clock is running out on the rest.
If no government agency or nonprofit organization steps forward to accept, open, maintain and assume liability for the access ways, the offers obtained from property owners will expire at an accelerating pace after the turn of the century.
"The public isn't getting their end of the bargain," said Linda Locklin, coastal access manager for the California Coastal Commission. "We've done our job in requiring offers to dedicate. We haven't done our job in implementing them."
Although the popularity of beach recreation has been rising with the state's population, public agencies and nonprofit conservation groups have hesitated to accept the liability and cost of establishing new access ways because of tight budgets.
In other cases, property owners, whose ranks include some of the state's wealthiest and most powerful people, have vigorously opposed efforts to open beaches, forcing long delays in public access projects. The struggle over one Malibu stairway has dragged on for more than 12 years.
"The biggest problem really is not so much the lack of public resources. I think it is the clash of cultures," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission. "The people who live [at the beach] want to keep the unwashed masses out."
California has a long history of battles between the public and property owners and developers. The latest skirmish occurred in May when the Coastal Commission approved plans to redevelop Marina del Rey into a high-rise community. In Santa Barbara County, conservationists seeking to preserve access have waged a fight for several years over Atlantic Richfield's construction of a golf course on the relatively undeveloped Gaviota coast.
While the building goes on, the Coastal Commission has far less power to secure public access from property owners because of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the late 1980s. In one Ventura case, the court decided that state planners could not require the builder to provide public walkways unless existing access was restricted by the project.
Douglas estimates that the rulings have reduced the commission's requests for public access from property owners by about two-thirds.
State officials say the court decisions and continuing development have made the existing inventory of potential access points increasingly valuable. Should those offers for public use be allowed to expire, Locklin said, "the people of California lose."
Public Use Mandate
It was the people of California who voted to maximize coastal access and control shoreline development when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition 20 in 1972, creating the Coastal Commission.
To secure access, the commission initially required owners who wanted building permits to record deed restrictions that would allow the public to cross a portion of their property.
Within a few years, this practice was replaced by a policy requiring owners in certain cases to offer to dedicate a portion of their land for public use. Before the public can gain access, however, a government agency or nonprofit organization must assume ownership within 21 years--or the offer expires.
These potential access ways generally fall into two categories--vertical ones that get people from a road to the shore, and lateral ones that allow people to use the beach above the mean high-tide line. That line, generally delineated by wet sand, traditionally has separated private land from state-owned beach.