POSTED: 14 September 2005 - 8:30am HST

Can Kauai learn from this?

view of Malibu beach property from

A Line In The Sand
by Jenny Sands 14 September 2005 in the New York Times

It's summer's end, and in Los Angeles that means we fold up the beach chairs, wash off the boogie boards, and take stock of who won and who lost in the annual Malibu summer beach wars. We've had an especially exciting round of battles this year.

In California, all beaches are public below the high tide line. The residents of Malibu, however, have long defied the state laws that require beachfront communities to maximize public access. In the last few years, the Coastal Commission has stepped up enforcement. On Memorial Day, as any Doonesbury reader knows, Hollywood mogul David Geffen finally gave up his 22-year battle and opened the public accessway next to his beach house.

But the real melodrama of early summer played out 15 miles up the coast on Broad Beach, where the homeowners bulldozed tons of sand out of the public tideland and used it to extend the private dune in front of their porches 25 feet closer to the ocean. The rest of us had to admit that reengineering the coast to shorten the public section of the beach was a creative move, if by far the most brazen violation of public access and environmental laws on a Malibu beach - which is saying a lot, for a Malibu beach.

The state demanded that the homeowners restore the coast, which they did by the weekend of July 4, and pay fines for the theft of public land, which they refused to do. The state sued to collect and issued a cease and desist order in August to force the Broad Beach residents to remove their "private beach" signs and to call off their motorized patrols. So far, the homeowners have complied. Though who knows - they may next hire a private amphibious defense force and secede from California.

People outside of Los Angeles snicker at our beach wars. And we concede that the thought of David Geffen going apoplectic while the hoi polloi sunbathe off his million-dollar patio is not unfunny. But Los Angeles is a metropolis where you could walk a mile and not see a sizeable public park, plaza or courtyard. The downtown center doesn't enjoy a single large public park amid a sea of corporate plazas.

The beach is one of the few truly great public spaces we have in southern California. Yet 20 of the 27 miles of the gorgeous Malibu coast are blocked by private development. These 20 miles constitute an entire quarter of the beachfront in Los Angeles County. Their treatment for decades as a private Riviera is one of the most egregious of all the violations of public space in greater Los Angeles.

In a city where the wealthiest residents tend to live in gated neighborhoods, Malibu's beachfront homeowners want and expect total insulation from the public. They complain that public beachgoers approach too close to their homes. Cars park along the street. Dogs wander in sometimes. Trash gets left. And if all that isn't shocking enough, apparently an occasional passerby knocks on a resident's door.

In other words, the homeowners demand 100 percent protection from all the things that occasionally happen to anyone whose yard abuts public land. Even in Los Angeles, most people live next to public spaces and can understand that this involves some contact with the public. An occasional passerby knocks on a door on my public street in Venice Beach, too, but my neighbors and I don't demand that the city rope off the sidewalks. What's really shocking is that the Broad Beach homeowners felt so certain that they were entitled to a public-free zone outside their houses that they actually decided they had the right to destroy public lands to enforce it - a tactic that made Mr. Geffen's two-decade battle and new 24-hour video surveillance look like a show of civic spirit. The real problem on these beaches, and in this town, has long been the profound lack of respect for public, not private, property.

So we, too, chuckle while the rich and powerful in Malibu claw against the state's mounting determination to enforce the public access laws. A few of us have walked back and forth on the sand in front of Mr. Geffen's house and mugged for his cameras for the fun of it. But we are starved for public space in Los Angeles, and the state's resolve to open these beaches satisfies our deadly serious desire to be able to get to and use some of our largest, most essential and most beautiful public lands.

If the Angelenos who are lucky and wealthy enough to buy a house on a stunning Malibu beach object that much to having to share, then they are welcome to move. But if not, welcome to the body politic. It's about time we treated this tremendous space in Los Angeles as the public space it is.