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It's the People's Coastline

January 07, 2002

The movie stars and corporate moguls in those gleaming oceanfront homes from Malibu to Laguna Beach have their reasons for their decades-long guerrilla war to keep beachgoers from the surf outside their pads. Producer David Geffen has found rubberneckers brazenly checking out his living room, and with no restrooms at the secluded stretches at Table Rock Beach or La Costa Beach other homeowners have discovered sunbathers relieving themselves against the sides of their wind-swept abodes.

So even though state law guarantees every Californian access to the seashore, the rich have simply barricaded the trails beside their homes that lead from the highway to the beach. Between Big Rock Beach and the Malibu Pier, the public can reach the water at only two places, more than three miles apart. As reported last week by The Times' Kenneth R. Weiss, other, nearby public access ways long ago offered by homeowners in exchange for the right to build or remodel their properties are blocked by chain-link fences, concrete walls, locked gates and, in one case, a tennis court.

The state Coastal Conservancy is charged with finding local agencies to build and maintain safe stairways or paths to the beach and provide services for the public, including trash pickup and on some beaches restrooms and lifeguards. But the agency has too often wilted before the high-powered lawyers of homeowners and a blizzard of legal challenges. In fact, in November the conservancy appeared to throw in the beach towel, drafting a policy that would have given up the public's claim to some of the 1,300 access ways offered on paper up and down the California coast, letting the state's claim to them expire.

Last month, the agency wisely reversed course, agreeing to redouble efforts to open dozens of walkways to the beach, including some between mansions, the most contentious ones. Local communities and nonprofit groups such as the Sierra Club are stepping forward to assume responsibility for the trails and stairways. We need more of this public spirit.

All homeowners want privacy, and fan-weary celebrities complain that they shouldn't have to put up with the occasional autograph seeker in a dripping bathing suit pestering them as they dine on their own decks. But when your home fronts on the public's beach, your choice is to put up with the public or move.

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