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A Seashore for the Rich Few

A study that could lead to greater access deserves good-faith consideration.

September 23, 2002

This week, like last, surf crashes onto the public sand in front of the private homes along the Malibu coast. But many of the public-access pathways through this exclusive real estate remain padlocked, leaving would-be beachcombers and families in boogie board-laden minivans staring through chain link at the seashore that, under California law, is theirs to enjoy.

Two recent changes should eventually get beachgoers past those Malibu gates, allowing planners to turn their attention to problems facing an even more critical stretch of coast north of Santa Barbara.

SB 1962 by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) requires the state to start taking title to some of hundreds of possible right-of-way paths before they revert to landowners. And the Coastal Commission has OKd a land-use plan for Malibu that will force open more pathways to the sea as well as protect some of the few remaining patches of open space along that stretch of coast.

Now federal and state resource agencies should turn their attention immediately to Gaviota and one of the last undeveloped stretches of Southern California shore.

There, the bulldozers that have chewed big chunks of the state's 1,100-mile coastline into so many home parcels are idle for the moment. Pelicans dive and fog crawls through the oak-and-chaparral-covered hills that rise steeply from U.S. Highway 101. But landowners have big plans.

Three years ago, Congress ordered the National Park Service to study the creation of a national seashore on the 200,000 acres that spread northward from UC Santa Barbara to Vandenberg Air Force Base. The magic words "national seashore" would protect the 46 miles of remote beaches, cliffs and grasslands by limiting development and making it easier for public agencies to buy land for permanent conservation.

Property owners in gated Hollister Ranch, a community of large estates in the coastal zone, have tried three times to scuttle this study in court. When litigation failed, many Hollister homeowners chipped in to hire a Washington lobbyist to badmouth the study. Meanwhile, some ranchette owners reportedly patrol "their" eight miles of beachfront, driving off at gunpoint surfers who arrived by boat to ride waves to the shore.

What seems to incense Gaviota's landowners is that folks who aren't rich or lucky think they have a right to feel waves slosh on their ankles and breathe the scent of salt air and sage. So far (surprise!) the rich and powerful few are getting their way.

A first draft of the national seashore study won't be ready until January. But already the Bush administration seems to have dismissed any such plan. "Land acquisition," an Interior Department official said last month, "is not a priority of this administration."

Sad. The amount of beachfront on which the average Californian can toss a Frisbee, build a sand castle or simply seek solace is shrinking, even as the state's population explodes.

After years of coastal warfare in Malibu, Californians deserve a good-faith look at the seashore proposal, not another dispiriting demonstration that money trumps the public's rights down by the sea.

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