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Public Beach? Not So Fast

Money is the key to unlocking gates for all Californians, cities and counties say. State agency vows to find the funding.

January 22, 2006|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Totuava Bay might be one of Laguna Beach's most popular beaches -- if one could only get there.

Backed by green hills, the picturesque cove with its broad, sandy shore is a public beach. But while a dozen private stairwells zigzag down the slope from bluff-top homes, the public's only access is at low tide over a rocky outcropping from the beach next door.

Beaches such as Totuava remain virtually off limits to the public up and down the state despite the California Coastal Commission's decades-long effort to help people reach the shore. Nearly 30 years after the commission began requiring oceanfront homeowners to provide public access, only 20% or 25 paths that lead from street to sand are open because local governments have been slow to take financial responsibility for them.

Confronted with this lack of progress, the commission plans to seek state funds to provide a long-term source of money for upkeep.

"We need maintenance money -- carrots to give local governments -- so that we can say: 'Hey, if you take this on, we'll pay for five to 10 years of maintenance,' " said Linda Locklin, manager of the commission's public-access program for the last 15 years.

Locklin estimated that relatively little money -- at a minimum $500,000 annually -- was needed to maintain as many as 25 more gates on a daily basis. The commission deserves those funds, she said, because "it's our mandate to provide and protect public access; we're saving the coast."

As an added enticement for cities and counties to open up access, the state Coastal Conservancy, the funding arm of the commission, often offers to pay to build the easements. But up and down the coast, not even an outright grant of several hundred thousand dollars proves to be enough, as local officials say they can't afford the luxury of providing beach access when money is needed for police, libraries, parks and other essential services.

The commission, which oversees development along California's 1,100-mile coastline, requires oceanfront property owners to provide access as a condition of building or remodeling. While most have surrendered land along the seaward edge of their property, some have been asked to provide paths across their property to enable the public to walk from the street to the shore. These paths are often the only means of access to public beaches behind wall-to-wall development -- and are often the focus of disputes.

The high-profile and long-running case of media mogul David Geffen -- who spent years in litigation with the commission over his promise to open the path next to his Malibu compound -- brought the issue into focus. Last spring he handed over the keys to his wooden gate to give people a way to reach Carbon Beach.

But the Geffen path opening is the exception. Most of these vertical easements throughout California have only been envisioned on paper, and many agreements have languished for more than two decades.

"I thought there'd be a queue at my door, with people saying, 'I want these easements,' when in fact I have time to be on the phone talking to you," said Locklin. "You're seeing monster houses, a wall of houses and fences going up. Where's the public access?"

The commission is not allowed to operate an easement. Instead, a local government agency, or, as a last resort, a nonprofit group, must agree to operate the path. Costs greatly fluctuate, depending on the geography.

Opening an access way can range from $10,000 to install fencing, signs and a gate, to $1.5 million to construct a stairway down a steep bluff. Maintenance costs can be as little a few hundred dollars annually to replace trash bags and pay someone to open and close the gate, to $350,000 to replace a stairway, such as the one in Pacifica, south of San Francisco, that was damaged when a bluff collapsed.

Oceanfront homes that were built before the commission was formed in 1976 are not required to provide public access. But commissioners said that most property owners will someday remodel their homes, and private sand will become a thing of the past.

Public beach includes everything seaward of the mean high-tide line, which changes throughout the year. This area typically is all of the wet sand and a few feet of dry shoreline.

Statewide, 125 vertical access ways have been set aside, cutting through housing that otherwise would have blocked the way to the beach. Originally, the pathways had to be opened within 21 years after being designated for public use, and dozens were in danger of expiring in 2002.

That year the state required the conservancy to take over liability for the paths. The conservancy, however, relies mainly on local governments to operate the paths because their trucks, rangers and public works departments do the work.

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