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The Sand and the Fury in Malibu

In a battle over access, coastal panel orders an end to postings and guards at Broad Beach.

July 10, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Launching a summer campaign on behalf of public sunbathing, the California Coastal Commission has targeted one of Malibu's most exclusive strands -- Broad Beach -- ordering an end to no-trespassing signs and security guards on all-terrain vehicles who shoo visitors off the dry sand.

The commission, established decades ago to protect public beach access, has demanded that homeowners remove the "Private Property, Do Not Trespass" signs in the sand. It has also demanded the community discontinue motorized beach patrols.

And the commission took the unusual step this week of posting aerial photos with lot-by-lot descriptions on its website, detailing precisely the public access easements where beachgoers can legally drape their towels and plant their umbrellas.

The fight over Broad Beach is emerging as a classic clash between public access and private property rights of the area's homeowners, who include celebrities Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and Danny DeVito, who starred with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie "Twins."

The homeowners contend that the private-property signs and the beach security patrols both existed before the Coastal Commission was established and thus fall outside the panel's jurisdiction.

Earlier this year, the homeowners group, the Trancas Property Owners Assn., filed a lawsuit challenging some of the public access easements, which it claimed were extracted by "coercion" in a manner that "shocks the conscience."

The association also has asked for help from Steve H. Kram, an executive with Schwarzenegger's former talent agency who was recently appointed by the governor to the 12-member Coastal Commission. In a recent letter to Kram, the association suggested meeting with a "small working group" of politically appointed commissioners who could overrule the staff's actions regarding Broad Beach.

The commission's staff said they targeted Broad Beach because they've received more complaints about signs and guards on that short strip of sand than anywhere else along the state's 1,100-mile coastline.

"The guards at Broad Beach are ATV bullies," said Peter Douglas, the commission's executive director. "I'm not trying to call people names. That's the way people have been treated by them."

The commission has begun its first wave of enforcement by sending letters to eight homeowners, asking each of them to remove the "Private Property" sign on the beach in front of their homes.

In the case of all eight, the signs are illegal because the homeowners failed to obtain the required coastal development permit to install them, according to the letters obtained by The Times under the California Public Records Act.

In one case, the property owner had agreed not to post any signs on his land -- an agreement he had recorded with property records in exchange for commission permission to demolish a home and build a new one four years ago.

In the seven other cases, the signs are on properties on which the owners have granted easements providing public access in exchange for permits to build or remodel their homes. The public easements typically cover a swath of dry sand that extends 25 feet inland from the mean high-tide line.

Everything seaward of that line -- essentially the surf zone and the wet sand -- allows unfettered public access because it is state tidelands.

Broad Beach's private property signs, according to the letter to the homeowners association, "give the impression that the entire beach is private." Indeed, depending on the tide, ocean waves can be seen lapping against the signs.

The commission's letter asks for the signs to be removed, and for use of the ATV-riding security guards to be discontinued. The patrols also require a permit from the Coastal Commission, which the homeowners association has not received, states the June 23 letter signed by Douglas.

"Moreover, the guards appear to instruct people to leave the beach without regard to whether they are on state tidelands, public access easements owned by the state, or land deed-restricted for public access," the letter states. "This activity prevents the public from enjoying a public beach area provided to them by the state and state law."

Marshall B. Grossman, a Broad Beach homeowner, lawyer and former coastal commissioner, said the commission is confused about its authority. The beach patrols and the signs both predate the 1972 voter approval of the Coastal Act, Grossman said, producing minutes from a 1971 association board meeting as evidence.

Broad Beach homeowners, he said, would prefer that the public stop just down the coast at Zuma Beach, which he calls a "world-class beach" offering lifeguards, food service, ample parking and public restrooms.

Broad Beach has none of those, he said, and homeowners grow weary of the brazenness of some beachgoers. "Because of the absence of sanitary facilities, many people will approach the residences and ask to use their bathrooms," Grossman said. "That's not acceptable."

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