Decades-old California law is quite precise about who owns the state's spectacular coastline: Everything below the mean high tide line over the previous 18.6 years belongs to the public. That means, in effect, that everyone has a right to walk on wet sand, anywhere (OK, outside of the boundaries of a few military installations). "There’s no such thing as an all-private beach in California," says Jenny Price, a writer, artist and environmental historian who lives on Venice Beach.
The California Coastal Act, crafted in the 1970s, has since tried to enforce that standard, protecting both the coastal environment and the public's access to it. But by the time the act was passed, two-thirds of the state's shore was already walled off behind private development, with locked gates between homes sealing off access to the wet sand beyond. In tony Malibu, just west of Los Angeles, 20 miles of the 27-mile coast are lined like this with what Price calls a "fortress" of private development – much of it plastered with disingenuous signs projecting the impression of a thoroughly private beach.
Ideally, the state standard says the public should have an access point down to the water every thousand feet along the coast. In reality, in Malibu, there is a scattering of hard-to-find gateways (17 in all), with "no parking signs" in front of them and an invisible patchwork behind them of easements where you can legally lay down your beach towel.
"For 40 years now, the public has been granting development permits in exchange for dry sand," Price says. "And for 40 years, the public hasn’t even known that they’ve been doing that."
This could be about to change, and likely in a way that will miff Malibu homeowners who have for decades gone to some pretty impressive lengths to confuse the public about its right to access some of the state's most important public space. Price, working with a Los Angeles-based startup called Escape Apps, has been walking the beach and tracing the little-used easements maps created by the California Coastal Commission.
This summer, Price and Escape Apps are planning to release a smartphone app that will explain to anyone who cares to download what all of the signs on Malibu won't tell you: where you can legally go to the beach. Today, they're entering the last stretch of a Kickstarter campaign to develop the app for Android as well, while making it free for the summer.
On the ground, the Malibu coast looks more like this:
That last sign shows an official public access point to Lechuza Beach, at left, immediately next to what looks like a contradictory sign posted by a property owner. This strategy is actually the second line of defense. The first one comes in the form of official-looking orange cones and "no parking" signs – available at any home improvement store – that discourage people from ever even getting out of their cars.
"Making it difficult to park is actually a strategy that lot of affluent beach communities have used all over the country," Price says. Get any of these signs removed off of the Pacific Coast Highway, and they pop back up in a few months, Price says. "It's like whack-a-mole."
"Then we also have fake driveways and fake garage doors," she says. Seriously. "I've seen one property that has four garage entrances, and all of those have cut curbs. But If you look really, really closely, three of those garages are sealed. There’s no garage there."
Price, who knows her way around these beaches better than anyone, has been photographed "trespassing" by property owners while leading tours to the beach. She's been contacted by their lawyers. She's been told where she can't park on these grounds: "This is my house, this is my sidewalk."
All of which prompts the question: Do these homeowners actually believe the public has no right here, or are they intentionally trying to misdirect people? The homeowners who have granted easements in exchange for permits to expand their homes or develop their properties (many of whom have tried after the fact to contest the easements) certainly can't claim the first excuse.
"I think most of what’s going on is they don’t think the public should be there because they’ve paid so much money for their houses, and L.A. is a place where people who are affluent expect to have a fair degree of protection from the public. It’s not New York, it’s not Chicago," Price says. "There are people who have mansions 50 feet from the high tide line, and they think the environmental problem down there is that a few more people will walk in front of their mansions."
At the heart of the problem, she says, is a fundamental lack of understanding about what it means to live next to a public space. And it's impossible to make a public space truly public if the public doesn't know they can go there.
In the long run, the Coastal Commission has a lot of work to do trying to create new access points and obtain further easements to satisfy the state's constitutional protection of the public coastline. But an app, in the meantime, could go no small way toward undoing the misconception that this beach isn't public in the first place.
As for these homeowners? "We’re not quite sure what to expect, but I’ve never seen them not respond," Price says. "My great hope would be that everybody leaves us alone. But that hasn’t been my experience in the past."
Top image, by Jenny Price, of Malibu Road Beach.