For years, beachgoers and environmentalists have worried that wealthy residents of Malibu's exclusive Broad Beach wanted to fence off their 1.1-mile oceanfront to outsiders.
Now, in the latest chapter of the shoreline saga, Broad Beach property owners, who include such celebrities as Pierce Brosnan, Goldie Hawn and Steven Spielberg, are building an 8-foot-high rock sea wall that they say is needed to protect their showplace homes from rising ocean water.
Workers have begun constructing the 4,100-foot-long wall by lifting boulders by crane over the tops of homes.
On Monday, they began stockpiling the project's huge rocks at the west end of Zuma Beach.
The $4-million wall, being paid for by the homeowners, is designed to buy time until they can mount a long-term project to dredge up sand and permanently restore the beach to the original 100-foot width, according to leaders of the Trancas Property Owners Assn.
Malibu city officials, who have issued emergency construction permits, and the California Coastal Commission have approved the work, citing the need to protect homes and septic systems buried in the sand between houses and the beach.
Beach erosion has left the septic tanks at risk of being unearthed by ocean waves, City Councilman Andy Stern said. "It's a huge public health hazard if it's not taken care of," he said.
The problems at Broad Beach may be an omen of things to come along the coast, according to some experts who say that rising sea levels are joining high tides and storm surf to gnaw away at California's sandy beaches.
Others, however, say previous efforts by homeowners to armor the beachfronts have only made the problem worse by accelerating erosion.
"You can't tell someone they can't protect their house. But when you armor a beach, the beach is gone. The waves bounce off the rocks and carry more sand away. If the current here is accelerated by the rocks, then Zuma Beach is next" to possibly have its sand carried off by changing wave action, said Hans Laetz, a Malibu activist who is involved in beach environmental work.
At Broad Beach, homeowners have struggled for more than a year to fight off wintertime storms and high tides by creating makeshift sea walls out of sandbags.
Some of the residents have spent $60,000 on the sandbagging, only to watch as pounding waves knocked the barriers down and pulled the 100-pound bags into the sea.
Last week, hundreds of laborers hired by residents were working along the beach, filling sandbags, piling them up and covering them with jute netting in a race to beat high tides that reached almost 7 feet Friday morning.
During Friday's high tide, waves overlapped the sandbag walls and surged into backyards.
Water reportedly entered three homes.
About 80 of the 108 lots that front Broad Beach will be shielded by the rocks in the current project.
The rest of the lots, at the western end of the beach, are already protected by walls.
Beachfront residents hope that when the current wall is finished, they can move on to design and develop a more permanent wall and import sand that they hope will restore the beach.
"People are paying about $1,000 per foot of beach frontage they have for this," said Steven Levitan, a member of the property owners group's restoration committee.
"Right now, this is an emergency version of what we want to do. The rocks will be incorporated in the long-term solution. The long-term plan is to bury them and then restore the beach to the way it was 30 years ago."
Levitan, a writer-producer of TV's "Modern Family" show who lives on Broad Beach in a home that is already protected by a sea wall, said tidal action and strong current have carried off much of the sand and natural berms that once protected homes from storm waves.
About 70,000 tons of rock will reportedly be trucked from Corona for the wall, which will be 5 feet to 8 feet high. Construction will take about six weeks, according to those familiar with the project.
Environmentalists said they would be glad to see Broad Beach free of sandbags.
Levitan, of the homeowners group, praised state and local officials for expediting emergency permits for the rock sea wall's construction.
"Our relationship has been rather contentious in the past. We're extremely happy with the way the city of Malibu and the Coastal Commission have responded," Levitan said. "They've been wonderful."