The Public Trust Doctrine Prevails

A big victory for California beach-goers and the integrity of the public trust doctrine! After years of bare-knuckle litigation, billionaire David Geffen has agreed to allow public access to the beach in front of his Malibu estate. Anyone can now reach the beautiful Carbon Beach by walking on a paved path from the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach.

It may seem like a minor matter, but Geffen’s case had the potential to set a nasty precedent to prevent the public from using its own asset, the beach. More than 1,300 California property owners have balked at providing access to “their” beaches over the past 30 years, so a loss in this case could have opened the floodgates for a lot more attempts to privatize beaches. The principle that beaches belong to everyone, not just the adjacent (wealthy) property owner, would be called into question.

Fortunately, California law is remarkably enlightened. It requires that all 1,160 miles of state shoreline be available to the public up to the mean high tide line. Without public easements to reach the beach, however, people can only resort to the kind of stunts that Michael Moore once used to gain access to the exclusive beaches of Greenwich, Connecticut. With TV cameras running, Moore mounted an amphibious “invasion” of inflatable rafts filled with undesirable non-residents.

The Geffen case rested on a broken promise. In 1983, in order to get a green light on permits for remodeling his house, Geffen agreed to open a public pathway across his property to the beach. This agreement was set to expire in 2004, however, unless someone would agree to maintain and insure the pathway. To their great discredit, the City of Malibu, Los Angeles County and the state Coastal Conservancy all refused. They apparently feared bad publicity, the maintenance costs and the political controversy that could be inflicted by a man reputed to be worth $4 billion.

So it fell to the nonprofit Access for All, co-founded by former Sierra Club fundraiser Steve Hoye, to vindicate the public’s rights. In 2002, the group signed an agreement with the California Coastal Commission to take care of a public pathway at the edge of Geffen’s property. Geffen then sued Access for All and the Commission, arguing that public access to the beach represented an unconstitutional “taking” of his property and that environmental reviews were needed.

On Friday, April 15 – three years after the litigation started and 22 years after promising to assure public access, with daily fines of $1,000 a day accumulating – Geffen threw in the towel and agreed to pay $300,000 in legal costs and to allow the public pathway. It’s a sweet victory. As Hoye told The Los Angeles Times, “Mr. Geffen threw everything at us, including the kitchen sink, and nothing stuck. 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.” Thank you, Access for All, for keeping the California shoreline open to everyone.