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Construction by Malibu homeowners stirs up anger over public beach access

The two public paths leading to Broad Beach were closed while a seawall was built to protect homes from battering waves. Five months after the project ended, the gates were still closed; one reopened Monday.

November 02, 2010|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Broad Beach is home to the rich and famous, a secluded stretch of coastline where the houses seem to practically sit on the sea.

But for those who don't live in the Malibu enclave, the public beach has been all but impossible to visit.

For years, Broad Beach has been the epicenter of high-profile battles over public access, and now chains, locks and barricades that have blocked the only two entrances to the beach have revived that fight.

The gates were locked last winter when residents got an emergency permit from the California Coastal Commission to build a 1.1-mile seawall to protect their multimillion-dollar homes from the advancing ocean. They were supposed to reopen by Memorial Day. Yet, for more than six months after the seawall was finished, the public was locked out.

Homeowners said the gates were blocked to protect the public from unfinished stairways — not to bar them from the sand. But as the closure stretched through the summer and into the fall, would-be visitors began to question whether the not-quite-finished project was a ruse to keep away outsiders.

"It's really a sore spot for a lot of people who are now cut off from that beach," said Jenny Price, a beach-access advocate from Venice. "If the beachfront residents have access to the public beach, then everyone should."

In February, workers began erecting the temporary seawall to shield homes along the fast-eroding shoreline from being battered by waves. County workers had permission to lock the gates during construction, which was to include an overhaul of the public pathways and the installation of stairs and handrails to give visitors a way over the 8-foot-high rock seawall.

Work on the privately funded seawall was finished by April, with rocks artfully laid into steps to provide homeowners a path to the sand. When construction crews packed up and left, beachgoers who had been making the two-mile detour to Zuma Beach to get to the sand thought it would be a matter of days until the gates were reopened.

But for months the public pathways sat in disrepair. When contractors finally installed concrete steps and metal handrails, inspectors deemed them deficient and unsafe, and the gates remained locked.

After a version of this story was published online Monday, the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors reopened one of the gates because, spokeswoman Dusty Crane said, the contractor told them the stairways had passed safety clearances.

But that gate may be closed intermittently as the contractor continues to make repairs, and the second entryway could take several more weeks to open, she said.

"We had hoped that that construction would have been completed long before now, however, there were glitches along the way," said Marshall Grossman, a Broad Beach homeowner and lawyer, who blamed the delays on onerous government permits.

Coastal Commission Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth said it has taken homeowners "an excessive amount of time" to build public stairways and handrails needed to reopen the accessways. The agency received complaints all summer from disappointed visitors, and Ainsworth contacted homeowners several times in recent months telling them to finish the work.

"The public just could not understand why it was taking so long, and rightly so," Ainsworth said. "This is a real concern for us; to have two accessways closed down for the entire summer is just unacceptable."

High-stakes fights pitting public access against private property rights have played out fiercely over the years at Broad Beach, a patchwork of public and private sand so highly contested that at one point the California Coastal Commission drafted an aerial map showing how many feet from each home visitors could spread out their towels.

The conflict reached a peak in 2005, when Broad Beach homeowners hired bulldozers to pile mounds of sand onto their private property and the Coastal Commission ordered them to remove "No Trespassing" signs and stop using private security guards on all-terrain vehicles to shoo visitors off the dry sand.

The months-long closure of public pathways this year appears to have brought back some of that tension.

Jim Yeager, a Malibu public relations executive who likes to go running on Broad Beach, said he approached a beach path leading to one of the gates on Labor Day weekend to find a private security guard sitting in a chair telling him he wasn't allowed to be there.

"These guys were able to close the beach off, put their rocks in and there's no ticking clock for opening it up again," Yeager said.

In years to come, the larger concern may be whether there will even be a Broad Beach left to fight over.

Unless drastic measures are taken, rising sea levels and heavy sand loss from severe storms and a stationary seawall are likely to cause what was once one of the widest expanses of open beach in the region to disappear.

"At high tide, the beach is now completely gone," said Nancy Hastings, Southern California field coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation. "The stairs lead you down into nowhere."

Broad Beach residents say they have a way to fix that and finally put public-access battles to rest.

The wall, Grossman said, is just the first step in a long-term plan to build a permanent seawall by burying boulders underground, to widen the beach to its original 100-foot width using tons of imported sand, and to offer a uniform public area of the beach beyond a privacy buffer next to the homes.

Price, however, said the homeowners' history of resisting visitors doesn't inspire confidence.

"I hope that their intentions are to make sufficient public access a priority," she said. "But I'm not expecting that to be true until I see it."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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