California beaches: how public are they?

June 21, 2013


As a Californian with a mother from the Bay Area and a father from Orange County, I’ve enjoyed a good deal of picturesque, western beach stretches both north and south.  As a child, I remember being in awe of their beauty and the fact that everyone could enjoy them for free.

I remember asking my dad, “Who owns the beach?”  Expecting to hear the name of some rich individual like Bill Gates or some well-known company, I was surprised by his response: “The state owns the beaches.  It’s all public property.  The government and the voters decided a long time ago that everyone has a right to access and enjoy the beach.”

Despite my father’s claim and a 1976  state law that upheld and enforced parts of the California Constitution granting rights of the public to California beaches, many stretches of coastline are functionally private, due to the efforts of powerful and wealthy beach residents.

In the last 20 years, Malibu has held out as one of these last, remaining pseudo-public enclaves.  As result, it has become the spotlight of a contentious debate between its beach-side residents and the masses who want access to some of California’s most beautiful beaches.  So how exactly are Malibu’s beaches pseudo-public?

For one, many residents contend that the sand and water in front of their homes are part of their property.  Taking that away from them would not only diminish the value of their homes, but according to them, rob them of their property.

beach access

In Malibu, public beach accesses like these are few and far between (images via Southern Resort and

In order to be truly public, beaches must have easy accessibility for the masses.  You would assume that you could simply walk up to public beach without a problem, but that’s not the case in Malibu, a suburb of L.A.  The city proper is known for being spread out, poorly planned and overly congested.  Malibu is no exception.

Beachfront homes in Malibu, although spacious, are packed tightly together so that owners can maximize the amount of beach on their property.  In keeping with the poor planning of L.A. County, this strategy has eradicated the space needed for easy access from the street to California’s sandy beaches.  A gap-less wall of multi-million dollar mansions barricades the way.

no trespassing sign

Some wealthy Malibu residents erect counterfeit trespassing or parking signs to dissuade beach-goers. Sign available at

Some narrow entrances exist, but they are few and far between compared to most parts of the coastline.  Furthermore, many residents try to obscure these passages with anything from bushes to locked gates.  They will deceive beach-goers by putting up faux No Parking or No Trespassing signs.  They even put up cones and construct fake garages to prevent people from parking by entrances.  Some signs claim they will call the sheriff on those who park and “trespass.”

A Malibu Sheriff tells Jeff Bridges, the Big Lebowski to stay out of his "Beach Community"

A Malibu sheriff tells Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski, to stay out of his “beach community.”

Legal battles between the two sides are ongoing, but the 1% wall seems to finally be crumbling.  Rich homeowners and celebrities, like David Geffen, seem to be losing the fight, making concession after concession. You can bet they will do everything they can to find workarounds and make using the new entrances as hard as possible.

Luckily, Jenny Price, an environmental writer and beach enthusiast, has built a strong counter-campaign for the every-man.  She’s designed an app called Our Malibu Beaches. The app uses maps of Malibu to show you descriptions,  pictures and locations of its beaches.  It provides tips on parking, access/easements to the beaches as well as the history of these pseudo-public beaches.  Many of the pointers are helpful in getting past the residents’ deceptive tactics to keep you off their beaches!

Despite the app, access to many of Malibu’s best beaches remains difficult.  With large distances between between access points, entrances are needles in a haystack.  Enjoying a day on some of these beaches may require swimming miles through the Pacific!

Private Beach Members Only Sign

A classic sign indicating a private beach. Available at

California’s legally public beaches will remain only partially public until more and more of Malibu’s elite and others up and down the coast relent.  Until then, some stretches of California beach will remind us of those of Europe, like La Costa Brava –gorgeous but privately reserved for the rich.

A private beach, la Costa Brava Spain

A private beach, la Costa Brava, Spain.

; ;