Steve Hudson, left, a California Coastal Commission district manager,… (Christina House, For The…)
The California Coastal Commission was on a mission to find out what's keeping the public from some of the state's most desirable beaches.
On a rare bus tour of the Malibu coast this month, officials stopped to inspect gates that were once locked, peered at fake "no parking" signs residents used to ward off beachgoers and even stumbled upon a movie shoot hogging all the parking at the glitzy beach town's pier.
But perhaps most noteworthy was what the commissioners didn't see: more than 20 pathways to the beach that were set aside on paper — some of them decades ago — but have yet to be built, depriving people of the opportunity to get to the shore.
Los Angeles County lags behind every county in Southern California when it comes to opening public paths to the sea, according to a new report by the Coastal Commission, the 12-member panel charged with policing development and ensuring public access along the state's 1,100-mile shoreline.
Since the 1970s, the agency has ordered that corridors of land for 34 walkways, stairways and viewing areas be designated for the public to reach the county's shoreline. The orders came through agreements with coastal property owners as a condition of building along the beach.
But decades later, only 13 have been built and opened.
"We know our work is cut out for us because over half the sites in the most populous county are not open," said Linda Locklin, manager of the agency's coastal access program. "That's not good enough."
The report showed that 60% of the 111 strips of land the commission has required landowners to offer for public access from San Diego to San Luis Obispo counties have been built and opened, compared with 38% in L.A. County. San Diego and Orange counties scored the best, with 85% and 73% of their agreed-upon pathways completed.
All of the unopened pathways in Los Angeles County are in Malibu, a wealthy enclave whose mansion-lined beaches and secluded coves have long been California's most contentious access battlegrounds.
On the four-hour field trip Thursday, the bus wound its way from the wide open sands of Santa Monica State Beach up Malibu's Pacific Coast Highway, where the sand and surf beckon from behind a wall of development and, often, the only blue-water views are the narrow spaces between the multimillion-dollar homes.
Stops on the excursion included sections with insufficient access, like a would-be pathway to Carbon Beach that is blocked by a massive generator, a 9-foot-high wall and a tennis court next to a bright white mansion. Staffers, acting as tour guides, pointed out Dan Blocker County Beach, a mile of sand that in 1979 was donated for public use in memory of the "Bonanza" actor but remains partly fenced off and difficult to reach.
At Broad Beach, a fast-eroding ribbon of sand that's home to the rich and famous, the commissioners got out of the bus and crowded onto a concrete stairway built over a rock-and-sandbag sea wall protecting a long line of pricey homes from the crashing waves.
The patchwork of public and private sand has made the beach a hot spot for conflict between wealthy residents and visitors. In the past, homeowners have posted misleading "private beach" signs and hired security guards on ATVs to shoo visitors off the sand.
After years of clashes, "the private guards are mostly gone," Coastal Commission district manager Steve Hudson told the group.
"Mostly gone?" one official asked.
Some guards remain, Hudson explained, but they no longer ride ATVs or tell visitors it's a private beach.
State coastal officials say they lack the funds and staff to open and maintain public access paths and must attempt to forge partnerships with local agencies to construct and operate the walkways before the agreements expire.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which manages five beach paths in the area and is building a sixth, said it would work with the state "to open these accessways which are not anywhere near fully accessible at this point."
The pathways required by the Coastal Commission are a small portion of the more than 850 access points run by local and state agencies, nonprofits and some private landowners up and down the coast, but they are often some of the most hard-won.
There are legal roadblocks too.
In Malibu, efforts to build public walkways to prized beaches are reliably met with landowner lawsuits, which can delay action for years.
Such holdups struck Coastal Commissioner Dayna Bochco as most frustrating.
"Through litigation you can give yourselves 10 to 15 years and keep the public away?" she said. "It just seems wrong."