Mogul Yields Beach Access to Public
April 15, 2005
(Rick Loomis / LAT)
By Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer
Ending a long-running dispute over coastal access, music producer David Geffen gave up the key to locked wooden gates next to his Malibu home, allowing the public to enter an exclusive stretch of beach walled off by multimillion-dollar homes.
The announcement brought public applause at a California Coastal Commission meeting Thursday as settlement talks continued over how much the billionaire principal of DreamWorks SKG may owe in attorneys fees and fines under the terms of the state’s Coastal Act.
Geffen’s action makes good on a 22-year-old legal promise to open a public pathway across his property in exchange for permits from the Coastal Commission to begin building his Cape Cod-style compound across multiple lots on Carbon Beach.
The public pathway from Pacific Coast Highway to the beach remained blocked for two decades because of government inaction and then was tied up in the courts for nearly three years as Geffen lawyers raised a series of legal arguments that a Los Angeles judge has steadily rejected.
“The only thing that’s left is how much money may be paid in attorney fees and fines,” said Daniel A. Olivas, a deputy state attorney general representing the Coastal Commission. “By turning over the key, he stopped the daily fines of $1,000 a day from accumulating.”
Neither Geffen’s lawyer, Steven Amerikaner, nor his spokesman, Andy Spahn, would comment.
But Steve Hoye, a former Sierra Club fundraiser who co-founded the nonprofit Access for All, said his group would exercise its agreement with the state to open — and monitor — the walkway as soon as it could install trash cans, post a sign and make sure the walkway was safe for the public.
Hoye said he picked up the keys Wednesday from a Geffen aide after producing an insurance policy as proof of the group’s liability coverage. He briefly opened the gate on Thursday and discovered that Geffen had paved the once-sand walkway, enclosed it between walls and installed a second set of gates about 25 feet seaward of the white wooden gates along Pacific Coast Highway. The key Geffen turned over opens both sets of gates, Hoye said.
“Mr. Geffen isn’t very happy with us at this time,” Hoye said. “But we hope to meet with him and address his concerns: what hours it will be open, trash cleanup and procedures if there’s a problem.”
Hoye said this would be the first of five walkways that Access for All has state approval to open, so the public can reach beaches fronting some of Malibu’s most exclusive enclaves. Beach access is blocked by gates and fences.
Scores of additional access-ways to the beaches remain tangled in lawsuits or in games of bureaucratic hot potato in exclusive seaside communities including Malibu, Laguna Beach and parts of Mendocino County. Although the Coastal Commission is making progress in finding groups willing to maintain the access-ways, few public agencies want to take on the administrative headaches or the political fights involved.
In Malibu, Hoye’s group took over responsibility for access easements after the city of Malibu, Los Angeles County and the state Coastal Conservancy declined to do so. Officials of those agencies have said they lacked the money and personnel to manage additional access-ways. They also made it clear they wanted to avoid the lawsuits and political wrangling they feared would follow any effort to press the issue.
Property records show that Geffen made an “irrevocable offer to dedicate public access” in 1983 in exchange for a permit to remodel his beachfront home.
That was at a time when the Coastal Commission routinely required such easements in exchange for building permits on oceanfront property.
The practice was sharply restricted in 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it illegal to force such concessions from property owners as a condition of development. But the courts have upheld the validity of easements that were dedicated by property owners before the ruling.
As was the case with many of the unopened walkways, Geffen’s “offer to dedicate” a public easement was to expire in 2004 if no public agency or nonprofit group stepped forward to accept responsibility. Access for All signed an agreement with the Coastal Commission and state Coastal Conservancy to do so in 2002.
Later that year, both state agencies and Access for All were sued by Geffen and the city of Malibu. The lawsuit challenged the access agreements in a number of ways, asserting that the nonprofit group lacked the ability to take care of public pathways and that opening them would violate state environmental rules and Geffen’s property rights.
The suit was widely seen as a significant test, because it raised novel legal arguments and because it was bankrolled by a man whom Forbes magazine has listed as the 40th richest American, with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
“Mr. Geffen threw everything at us, including the kitchen sink, and nothing stuck,” Hoye said. “If we’ve been through this, we feel we can withstand any challenges in the future. I’m ecstatic that it took only three years.”
Geffen’s case gained national notoriety when he was lampooned in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip, which featured former sun-worshiper Zonker Harris’ return to Malibu. Another public walkway was named after Harris after an earlier fight over public access to the Malibu shore about a 25-minute walk west of Geffen’s property.
Geffen’s lawyers and coastal commissioners on Thursday were engaged in a series of settlement offers and counteroffers, which could be finalized as early as today.
Lawyers on both sides of the case declined to discuss details of the offers.
But Olivas, the deputy state attorney general, said the settlement talks have to do with potential fines, attorneys fees and whether to pursue a Coastal Commission countersuit seeking a judicial order that Geffen abide by the state Coastal Act.
“We’re absolutely delighted that Mr. Geffen has realized it didn’t make sense to litigate anymore,” Olivas said.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful portion of beach. I cannot wait for the public to start using this access-way.”