In Memoriam

educating the public on environmental issues

Beach-Access Case Proves Commission's Value

At least David Geffen himself had the sense not to comment on the recent settlement of the lawsuit filed by the Coastal Commission over the public's right to access the beach near his Malibu home. When a Los Angeles TV newscaster asked one of his neighbors if she thought private property rights of beachfront homeowners should extend into the water, she replied, "They should extend to the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

Such arrogance shows why the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission are so important. Imagine the problems that would be created for maritime commerce and California's $61 billion beach-related tourism industry (California Beach Restoration Study, 2002) if these "my-money-makes-me-special" attitudes formed the basis for managing the state's coastal activities.

Even the deliriously successful of this state must have respect for its laws, whether or not they find them convenient. The battle with Geffen dates back to an agreement that he made with the commission in 1983 to open a pathway to the beach in exchange for receiving permits to begin building his beachfront compound over multiple lots. He reneged on the agreement when he erected two sets of locked wooden gates to close the access walk.

The settlement will help provide increased public access to the beach through the otherwise impenetrable wall of oceanfront homes that stretch for nearly four miles in eastern Malibu. The right to access the wet sand, however, is guaranteed by California's Coastal Act and as former Coastal Commissioner Ellen Stern Harris has said, "You shouldn't need a rowboat to get there."

As the decision-making body that rules on all development permits along the coast, the Coastal Commission is always controversial. Both developers and environmental activists generally regard the rulings of the commission as too lenient toward the opposing side. In that balance, can be seen the wisdom of the authors of the Coastal Act and the voters of the state who passed the 1972 initiative that created it.

Without it, there would be no coastal wetlands, no habitat for birds and other shore-dwelling species and few public access points to beaches other than in crowded metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, there are still more than 100 other blocked access routes to the shore through residential communities in Laguna Beach, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and San Mateo counties.

Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said that the Geffen settlement "should send a signal to other holdouts. We are going after them with equal vigor that we did in Geffen's case."

Anyone who has attended a Coastal Commission meeting understands that the work of the commission can be extremely complex. Dozens of permit applications are considered at each monthly meeting, each with its own set of complexities. The commissioners must assess a large amount of detailed information before voting. Agendas are long and sessions frequently stretch into late evening. The unpaid commissioners only receive reimbursement for travel expenses as their meetings are held in different coastal cities each month. State budget cuts have whittled away at the commission's staffing resources, increasing the staff's workload at a time when such major issues as the federal government's efforts to expand oil drilling off the coast demand immense staffing resources.

Many Californians list our beautiful coast as a primary reason they live here. Those who feel this way can do something of real importance to protect it. Call, write or e-mail the offices of those who appoint our coastal commissioners -- the governor, the Senate pro tem and the speaker of the Assembly. Tell them we need not only commissioners who will continue to act vigorously on behalf of the public and the environment, but also an adequate budget for commission staff to do their job.