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Coastline access: the battle over beachfront ownership

Malibu beach
Beachgoers along the Malibu shore, California.  

By Bill Schneider

(CNN) -- The doctrine of public trust, which says that beaches shall be open to public use, dates back 1,500 years to the Roman emperor Justinian.

However, Justinian never had to deal with Hollywood mogul David Geffen -- and other beachfront property owners in Malibu.

It all comes down to a locked gate on the property of billionaire film and record producer David Geffen.

On one side of the gate, paradise: the fabulous Malibu beaches -- playground of Gidget and the Beach Boys.

On the other side of the gate: the Pacific Coast Highway -- busy and dangerous.

Can the state force Geffen to open that gate?

Yes, according to activist Steve Hoye of "Access for All."

``With a little landscaping and a key to those gates, we can open that up tomorrow, and that is what I'd like to do," said Hoye. "And that is currently why we are in court. Because he's trying to stop me.''

It's an outrage, say Malibu homeowners like Jody Siegler. ``Nobody would knock on your door as an apartment dweller or as a homeowner and say, 'that is a really pretty view over there; we would love to set up some picnic blankets.'''

Who owns the beach?

Thirty years ago, California voters passed a law that answered the question: The people own the beach. Property owners must not interfere with the public's access to the beach.

But they do -- with warning signs, fences, locks, fees and unlabeled entryways.

How can they do that?

David Geffen
Hollywood mogul David Geffen  

Politically, there's an imbalance. Beach property owners are likely to be wealthy and influential like Geffen. Their opponents drive them nuts.

``They have sort of latched on to this rabble-rousing rallying cry that is supposed to have a popular appeal -- which it does," said Siegler. "And if you can get to say it in 30 seconds -- which they do -- sure, why not? What's the big problem? Fling open the doors; let the public go. Homeowners, what's the beef? How could you possible object to that?''

But the public has not rallied around the issue of beach rights. Why not? The beach-going public is blissfully unaware.

``They basically can go to the beach anywhere they like, but they don't know that," said Hoye. "What I aim to do is tell them because they don't know that.''

More than half of the U.S. population now lives and works within 50 miles of the nation's coastline. About 70 percent of the nation's coastline is privately owned.

Put those two facts together, and you've got a conflict that's likely to last a long time.




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