Why California's Beaches are Open to Everyone

marilyn monroe in malibu.jpg
Marilyn Monroe, c. 1950, off Malibu Beach. Photo from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

The Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A."¨
Law: California Coastal Act (and Proposition 20)
Year: 1976 (and 1972)
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Molly Selvin


In 1968, construction began on the nuclear Diablo Canyon Power Plant located seaside up in San Louis Obispo County.

The following year, the infamous Santa Barbara oil spill fouled an estimated 800 square miles of ocean and thirty-five miles of coastline. Oil spewed out of control for more than eleven consecutive days.

Catalyzed by the above -- and informed by historic European land use philosophies as well as a contemporaneous flowering of the American environmental movement -- California voters in 1972 passed Proposition 20, also known as the California Coastal Commission Initiative.

The ballot measure called for the temporary creation of the California Coastal Commission, a politically appointed body tasked in part with protecting and preserving the 1,100 miles that make up the Golden State's coast and guaranteeing the public's access to that sea and shore. In 1976, the state legislature passed the California Coastal Act, basically making Prop 20 permanent.

"These two laws were really instrumental in changing the way Los Angeles, Southern California and the whole state's coastline looks and the ability of people in California to enjoy those resources," says Molly Selvin, associate dean for interdisciplinary programs at Southwestern Law School.

Selvin, who previously worked at RAND and then as a reporter and editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, wrote her doctoral thesis about the public trust doctrine. This is the legal, political and communal underpinning of both Prop 20 and the subsequent Coastal Act.

"This doctrine," Selvin says, "is the reason that beaches in California are held 'in trust' for public use, the source of the battles over Broad Beach in Malibu and one of the major tools the Coastal Commission has wielded in its decades long effort to keep beach and shoreline resources open and accessible to the public."

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The Coastal Act is beloved by many and loathed by some. "Some of that, obviously," Selvin points out, "depends on where you sit." Selvin didn't necessarily mean the above in the following context, but that 'where you sit' perspective can be as simple as whether a beach visitor has his or her feet on wet or dry sand.

"The public trust doctrine," Selvin says, "holds that the sand below the mean high tide line is held for the public." Meaning, more or less: All of have the right to be on sand that's wet or damp, but not necessarily so where the sand is dry.

Everyone from The Los Angeles Urban Rangers to LAT columnist Steve Lopez

to Land of Sunshine colleague Robert Garcia have well-documented occasions -- if not larger patterns -- where the public's rights to the coast are assailed or denied.

Stories throughout the years abound of private security guards working for beachfront residents demanding that protected beach visitors leave; of public parking spaces being turned instead into landscaped gardens; of gates or stairs being impenetrable; and, believe it or not, even of the public's sand being removed by skip loader.

Just keeping up with all the above might seem like plenty for the Coastal Commission to handle. But the Commission's purview includes not just the waterfront, but on occasion, property up to five miles away.

In addition to insuring public access and sightlines, the Commission also reviews development requests, liaisons with the federal government and local governments, and reviews water quality matters such as coastal wastewater treatment plants and oil spill prevention and emergency response.

An 1853 map of the Southern California coastline. The cartographer was Lieutenant R.S. Williams. Image courtesy USC Digital Archives
An 1853 map of the Southern California coastline. The cartographer was Lieutenant R.S. Williams. Image courtesy USC Digital Archives

Advocates of limited or no government regulation complain about an unelected body -- or perhaps any body -- holding so much perceived power. On the other far end of the spectrum, the Commission is sometimes labeled as too bureaucratic, toothless, and perhaps as a tool of the big money political structure.

(The Commissions' members are appointed, in equal measure, by the speaker of the state assembly, the rules committee of the state senate and the Governor.)

How does Selvin assess the group's overall performance? "The Coastal Commission has been underfunded and understaffed and clearly could be better" she says. "But I think the egregious behavior of folks in Malibu and other places has given momentum to the commission's efforts to secure access."

As mentioned earlier, Selvin points out that Coastal Act rests on the foundations of centuries' worth of (mostly) European laws and land use philosophy. Examples range from Roman civil -- or, Justinian -- law to English common law, and French law to the Spanish crown's Laws of The Indies [Read about why L.A. Isn't A Beach Town]

and from Spain via Mexico, the Pueblo Land Grants. [Read this.]

"These antecedents protected tidelands, swamplands and navigable waters," Selvin says. "Basically, they meant that the sovereign had the inalienable right to protect those resources on behalf of the people. You couldn't grant those rights away, you couldn't grant the land away."

Santa Barbara oil wells, c. 1920. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives.jpg
Santa Barbara oil wells, c. 1920. Photo courtesy USC Digital Archives

So, did California's 1972 and 1976 actions ebb the flow of private seaside development?

Peter Douglas, at least, would say yes. Douglas co-wrote Prop 20 and then spent much of the rest of his life helming the Coastal Commission. His death last April was met by waves of adoring eulogies. Just prior to his passing, a lush and moving short film featuring Douglas was produced by the Oprah Winfrey Network -- who knew, right?

As sea lions cavort on shore, waves strike craggy rocks and a pelican flies by, Douglas discussed the Act's accomplishments the way an artist sees the negative space between more visible objects.

"It's the public access that hasn't been lost, the subdivisions that weren't approved, it's the wetlands that weren't filled, it's the scenic vistas that weren't destroyed," Douglas said. "It's what we don't see that is our major accomplishment."

Or, as Molly Selvin says: "Given the construction that already exists along the coast, you can imagine what it would look like without this kind of really strong body."


**Jeremy Rosenberg used to work there as well.

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