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The Long, Bumpy Path to the Beach : Agency seeks new money and laws in confronting huge easement backlog

November 26, 1995

The state Coastal Commission finally seems earnest about its responsibility to secure public access to California's beaches. But because of years of inaction and current money shortages, the agency will now face extraordinary difficulties.

Meeting in Los Angeles earlier this month, the commission unanimously agreed to seek legislation that could generate $500,000 a year to open new paths to the state's 1,100 miles of coastline. The funding would permit the commission and related agencies to add required personnel to clear a huge backlog of beach easement offers.

The commission, created 23 years ago to protect and preserve coastal lands, is seeking to accept for the public's use 1,012 offers from coastal landowners to allow access to the beaches through their properties. State law requires coastal property owners make such "dedications" in exchange for permits to build or redevelop on their land.

The easements, which include paths to or along beaches, trails and parks, are especially valuable in Southern California, where intense coastal development and the resistance of some private landowners have all but barred the public from certain beaches. Most of the offers will expire between 2001 and 2008 unless the commission acts. If the deadlines pass, the state will have to buy rights of way at prevailing prices, in many cases from the same owners who have already made the required offers.

The commission's record so far is dismal; just 19% of the offers have been accepted by public agencies.

Agencies other than the Coastal Commission must agree to maintain the involved stairways, beach paths, trails and parks. The state Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission, county agencies and nonprofit conservancies have stepped forward in some cases, but their resources are strained too.

An influx of state funds to these cash-pinched agencies would surely help speed the process. So would the liability law changes that the commission seeks to assure greater immunity to agencies and nonprofit groups that maintain the access ways. But prospects for legislative relief are always uncertain and cannot be an excuse for more delay. The Coastal Commission must redouble its efforts to accept these offers, preserving invaluable access to the water's edge and coastal cliffs before the opportunity is lost.

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