OAKLAND — The state Coastal Conservancy reversed course Thursday and agreed to help open dozens of planned public walkways to the beach, especially those that cut between oceanfront mansions whose owners have been most opposed to the expanded access.
The policy adopted unanimously was revised from an earlier version that had prompted coastal activists to accuse the conservancy of backsliding on its mandate to expand beach access.
In the next few years, the conservancy will have to adopt--or let expire--the most contentious of the easements.
The list includes unused access ways that cross the Malibu estates of producer David Geffen, former "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark, rock 'n' roll star Eddie Van Halen and former MGM Chairman Frank G. Mancuso.
"I don't care if a homeowner wants to challenge us," said Paul Morabito, chairman of the conservancy's seven-member board. "Let them challenge us. Our mandate is to preserve public access."
Public use of these 1,269 strips of land, many of them concentrated in Malibu and in Orange, Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties, was promised years ago by property owners in exchange for permission from the California Coastal Commission to build or remodel houses.
The majority of these walkways, trails and viewpoints have remained inaccessible to the public as high fences and shoulder-to-shoulder houses have cut off access to the coast.
That has frustrated coastal activists, who point out that some of the most scenic stretches of shoreline are off limits to beach lovers, sunbathers, swimmers and surfers despite the intent of the 25-year-old Coastal Act to improve access.
If these routes, which run both parallel and perpendicular to the shore, aren't opened, said the Sierra Club's Mark Massara, the state's growing population will be denied access to many desirable stretches of coastline.
Most of the easements were set to expire 21 years after they were proposed unless the government acted or a nonprofit group acquired them and agreed to maintain them. The clock is beginning to run out.
So the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, agreed two years ago to adopt these potential walkways if no other agency or nonprofit group was willing to take on the responsibility.
It is not the conservancy's job to actually open the easements to the public. Rather, the agency holds them until another government body or a nonprofit group takes over their maintenance and assumes liability.
But this fall the conservancy board declined to preserve an easement--allowing it to expire--in rural Mendocino County after the property owner and neighbors raised a number of objections to opening it up.
Foreseeing more such decisions in the near future, the conservancy decided to formulate a policy on how it would approach each one.
Coastal Commission Chairwoman Sara Wan severely criticized the first draft, because it set down a list of specific legal and logistical reasons why the conservancy could reject such easements.
Wan, who also sits on the conservancy board, likened it to creating a legal road map for homeowners--and their lawyers--seeking to scuttle the long-ignored plans to open their property to the public.
The revised policy is substantially different. It spells out the conservancy's resolve to accept the easements, particularly those that connect roads to the shoreline.
"We turned this around," Wan said. "We've made it clear that the circumstances for rejection will be very limited."
In addition, the conservancy will begin using its financial clout to nudge local agencies to open the unused walkways to the public.
For instance, as it distributes $240 million in Proposition 12 park bond funds, the conservancy will require some recipients to open easements as a condition of receiving public funds.
The bulk of the access points are left over from the 1970s and 1980s, when the Coastal Commission extracted them as a condition of building on or near the beach.
The ability to designate the easements was significantly curtailed in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it illegal to force such concessions from property owners in exchange for building rights. But the courts have upheld the validity of easements that were dedicated before the ruling.
Property owners continue to challenge them in court. Last year, Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News Press, sued to block public access to a narrow strip of beach below her bluff-top estate in Santa Barbara. She lost twice in Superior Court but has continued her legal battle in appeals courts.