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Drawing a Line in the Sand

September 06, 2004

Labor Day may signal the end of the summer beach season, but in Malibu the sand fight waged by wealthy residents for years against state officials and anyone who wants to wade into the crystalline water will continue for at least another few months. Still, for the first time in years, there's talk of a settlement that would offer real access to the public.

Broad Beach has long been a fiery seat of resistors. The terraced palace-cottages of the rich and famous stand shoulder to shoulder along this stretch of surf, effectively walling off the ocean to all but residents.

By law, the surf and the wet sand up and down California belong to the public. Easements that beachfront owners have granted in years past can add a zone of public use 25 feet or more inland from the mean high-tide line onto dry sand.

About half of the 100 Broad Beach homeowners agreed to donate easements in return for permission to build or remodel their property. But with the hot tub bubbling on the new deck, they now condemn the easements as shakedowns by the California Coastal Commission.

So instead of marked paths to the water, the stray visitor to Broad Beach finds chained gates, no-trespassing signs and surly private guards astride all-terrain vehicles who chase off "intruders."

In June, Coastal Commission officials, tired of asking "please," wrote Broad Beach residents, telling them to remove the signs and call off the guards. The panel also posted on its website (www.coastal.ca.gov/web) photographs of the public easements to and across the sand in front of each house along that beach. Another, sterner letter followed last month, citing the possibility that commission action, including court orders and fines for recalcitrant homeowners, could follow.

The letters finally may prompt an end to this grinding war. A group of Broad Beach homeowners is now talking with commission staffers about a settlement. Under its still-sketchy outlines, all 100 homeowners would agree to a uniform 25-foot public easement of dry sand instead of the patchwork that now exists. Instead of the growling guards, sheriff's deputies would patrol as they do at nearby Zuma Beach. Homeowners also would pull up the misleading no-trespassing signs and in return be allowed to warn visitors away from land outside the easement.

There are many reasons to recommend this a deal, not the least of which is that next Labor Day we wouldn't have to again lament the guards, the signs and this ridiculous standoff in the surf.

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