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Stonewalling by the Shore

July 17, 2002

While much of Southern California broils, Wendy McCaw and David Geffen relax amid the cooling breezes that blow through their oceanfront aeries. McCaw, the billionaire owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, has a 25-acre bluff-top pad in Hope Ranch, and Geffen, the entertainment mogul and philanthropist, beds down in a fine home on Malibu's Carbon Beach.

California law decrees that the sand and surf near McCaw's and Geffen's homes belong to the public and guarantees, as well, the public's right to get to the water, even where private homes block the way for miles.

The California Coastal Commission, created by popular vote in 1972, oversees development along the state's 1,100-mile coast. In Southern California, that often means beachfront owners must get commission approval before remodeling or expanding their property if their changes might adversely affect the beach or the ocean.

Geffen deeded a public easement across his property in exchange for commission approval to build a sea wall, enlarge his garage and build a guest house, maid's quarters, a deck and a swimming pool. McCaw, when she bought her property, inherited the previous owner's offer to dedicate an easement in exchange for expanding the house.

But with the sawdust from these remodeling projects long swept away, McCaw and Geffen have reneged on their promises to the public. To keep folks from traipsing across his yard to the sea, Geffen shut the gate to the walkway. He argues that the beach lacks the parking, lifeguards and restroom facilities needed to accommodate the public--even though the nonprofit group Access for All, which offered to take over this easement on behalf of the public, says it has a plan addressing each of Geffen's stated concerns.

McCaw has so stonewalled the public in court that the Coastal Commission hit her with $460,000 in fines, which she has now paid. Undaunted, she's suing to keep Santa Barbara County from formally acquiring her easement and opening the 500-foot strip of beach below her home.

McCaw and Geffen are community leaders. McCaw bought the News-Press two years ago; the foundation that bears her name has funded a variety of environmental causes, including wildlife preservation and reducing ocean pollution. Geffen has become a major philanthropist, recently donating $200 million to the UCLA Medical School. But neither largess nor power elevates one above the law that says the coastline belongs to everyone.

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