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Coastal Landowners Fight To Keep Out The Riffraff

Movies, music and television have created a global image of California as the land of sunshine and surf. Like many caricatures, the mystique has a nugget of truth at its core: Californians do love their beaches. Eighty percent of the state's 34 million residents live within an hour's drive of the shore, according to the California Coastal Commission. A few years ago, the Public Research Institute of San Francisco State University reported that the average family makes 15 beach trips a year. The government's "California Coastal Access Guide" is now in its fifth edition. Some California beach lovers enjoy the experience so much, however, that they want to keep those of lesser financial means from intruding on their private patches of paradise. This summer, that classic struggle between the proletariat and the privileged is being played out quietly in the Legislature and loudly in gossipy newspaper stories. By law, the state owns everything on the beach below the mean high tide line, and the public has an unfettered right to use that damp strip of real estate. Getting to it, however, is another matter. About 42% of the coastline is publicly owned and accessible, while the other 58% is owned privately, or is held by local, state or federal agencies and closed to entry. The state is obligated by law to maintain and expand public access to the beach. The 1976 Coastal Act prohibits new development from blocking established access routes, whether they are on public land or private property. In areas where no public access exists, the Coastal Act requires that new routes from the nearest road to the shoreline be provided as part of any new project. In the first decade of its existence, the Coastal Commission commonly carried out this mandate by exacting Offers to Dedicate (OTD) public easements. In exchange for approval of a coastal development permit, the commission required the private landowner to offer an easement, generally 10 to 25 feet wide, to a government agency or nonprofit organization. Once a recipient accepts the offer contingent on its acceptance of liability and responsibility for maintenance it obtains title to the easement. If no public or private entity accepts the OTD, it expires, usually after 21 years. The Coastal Commission curtailed this practice after 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825, that such a requirement was an unconstitutional taking of private property unless there was a clear "nexus," or connection, between the project's impact and the condition for the easement. In 1981, 4.9% of all coastal development permits had OTDs attached to them, said Linda Locklin, the Coastal Commission's manager of coastal access programs. In the year after Nollan, the figure fell to 1.2%. By 1995, it was only 0.5%. Since 1976, the Coastal Commission has obtained 1,363 OTDs. Fifteen have expired, Locklin said, and about 750 have been accepted. The remaining offers are outstanding, and scores will expire during the next five years if a recipient does not step forward. The Coastal Commission has given highest priority to "vertical OTDs" those providing access perpendicular to the ocean, generally from the first public road (Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 1) to the shoreline. During the next five years, 44 of these could expire. The Coastal Commission cannot accept the easements, but the California Coastal Conservancy and local agencies can and do. Many communities are reluctant, however, arguing that the cost of providing parking, restrooms, maintenance and liability insurance is prohibitive. Several bills are working their way through the Legislature this summer to address the pending expiration of OTDs: o SB 1962 by Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) would require the Coastal Conservancy to accept any outstanding OTD if it has not been accepted by another public agency or nonprofit organization within 90 days of the OTD's expiration. o AB 2162 by Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLoud (D-Chino) would earmark half the revenue from sale of the state's "Whale's Tail" vanity license plates for deposit into a special coastal access fund to pay for maintenance and other costs associated with easements. o SB 1966 by Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) would require that public agencies and nonprofit organizations prepare a study analyzing the public safety impacts before they open an access route obtained through an OTD, including the need for maintenance, parking, lifeguards, and police and fire access. The Coastal Commission has endorsed SB 1962 and AB 2162, but opposes SB 1966, viewing it as an impediment to public access. Meanwhile, California's rich and famous continue to battle the state and each other over access to public beaches near their multimillion-dollar estates. In June, entertainment mogul David Geffen sued the Coastal Commission and a nonprofit group, Access for All, which the commission authorized to accept an OTD that Geffen provided in 1983 as a condition of expanding his Malibu beach house. Nancy Daly Riordan, wife of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, billionaire developer Eli Broad and cartoon producer Haim Saban won permission to build huge Malibu mansions that blocked the ocean by spending $1 million to buy land for public access near actor Ryan O'Neal's home at the La Costa Beach Club. The La Costa Beach Homeowners Association and the Malibu La Costa Owners Association sued the state and last year won at trial, persuading a judge that the Coastal Commission had illegally allowed the trio to circumvent beachfront building restrictions. The state has appealed. In 1991, singer and actress Julie Andrews and her husband, movie director Blake Edwards, gave the state $338,000 to move a public-access route from their Malibu property and instead build a staircase to the beach near the home of former MGM studio head Frank Mancuso. More recently, Mancuso offered to pay for a program to bus school children to other beaches if the state would relinquish that easement. The state refused. Malibu is not the only wealthy enclave where private residents are trying in court to curtail public access (see CP&DR Legal Digest, May 2002). At exclusive Hope Ranch just north of Santa Barbara, Wendy McCaw the billionaire owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press who inherited an OTD when she bought her home sued the Coastal Commission over an easement granting public access to 500 feet of beach below her 25-acre, bluff-top estate. The Coastal Commission countersued; McCaw settled earlier this year by paying $460,000 in fines. McCaw also sued Santa Barbara County over the easement. She lost at both the trial and appellate court levels. Contacts: Linda Locklin, California Coastal Commission: (831) 427-4875. Bill information: www.leginfo.ca.gov Coastal Commission's OTD program: www.coastal.ca.gov/web/access/otd-access.html
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