ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I know I suffer from hometown prejudice, but is there a more beautiful stretch of coastline anywhere in the world at least as beautiful as Copacabana or the Cote D'Azur?
The name itself, Malibu, resonates with sensual magic; a mix of sun and surf with the added cachet of Hollywood glamour. The stars and star-makers have long had homes, or second homes, here along this 27 mile coastal corridor hugging the pacific-- sandy, laid-back L.A. affluence. They don't actually own the beach, though they sometimes act as if they think they do. But in fact, it's public property. That's not quite right. The homeowners sometimes have title to the sand, down to the mean high tide line, leaving the public just a damp walkway right next to the water.
The only problem is, how do we get at it? Increasingly, Malibu, like other hot spots along the California coast, is a blur of no parking signs, fences, huge mega-houses blocking access to the sea. It's beginning to resemble one long, gated community with the requisite yoga studios, video rental places, and trendy restaurants tucked in on the other side of the coast highway. Which brings us to the little footpaths like these.
It is these scruffy little pathways that the State of California is now fighting to preserve, as they represent the only way for the public to get their feet in the golden sands of Malibu. There are a smattering of these along these affluent miles, where a house will set you back 5, 6, 10 million dollars. But you have to look hard for them or they might just elude you. On a beautiful days, a privately employed guard on a golf cart whizzes up and down this gilded stretch, herding the beachgoers away from the houses, and closer to-- preferably into-- the water. I know. It's happened to me.
In fairness, it's not just Malibu. 50% of the 1,100 mile California coastline is in private hands, and the little pathways are the only public links to the Pacific. And now, many are facing a moment of truth. In effect, the private property owners have, in exchange for building permits, and the like, granted these easements to the public. More than 1,300 such agreements were made. But in the next few years, many will expire and the pathways will revert forever to private hands, unless someone steps in to preserve them, precisely what the California Coastal Commission is scurrying to do. The Commission itself cannot own the pathways. It must find suitable second parties, local governments, or non-profits, to take on the task of pathway upkeep.
In short, pathways like this one are the narrow, sandy battlegrounds between the rich and the rest; one of those Maginot lines between haves and the wants, between our desire for public access and our reverence for private ownership; one of those classic heart-of- capitalism tension points. Newspapers report that a couple of rich Malibu homeowners offered to bus less affluent kids to a different beach, rather than provide an access pathway between their mega-shacks.
No question this state struggles to balance private and public concerns, and we're lucky, I suppose, that the coastline is not one long overbuilt lure of condos and commercial concerns. But what you realize is that it requires constant vigilance, constant energy, to keep it that way, and that the loss of one small unassuming footpath to the ocean would be an irretrievable loss; a small but pronounced blight on the notion of equality for all.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.