MALIBU — The designers of an iPhone app that identifies public access points to Malibu beaches successfully reached a fundraising goal of $30,000 last week to make it free to download.
The “Our Malibu Beaches” app is being hailed as a victory for public access by proponents, while some residents are concerned that increased visitors from the app could bring sanitation and law enforcement issues at public access points that currently lack restrooms, trash receptacles and regular patrols.
The app was inspired by environmental writer and longtime public access advocate Jenny Price, whose three-part series for LA Observed in 2007 shone a critical light on Malibu’s many well-kept secret access points and beaches.
“The beaches aren’t private,” Price said. “There are a lot of public easements on dry sand, and we are just using the app to show beachgoers where they can go legally and avoid trespassing.”
Many of the beaches in the more exclusive areas of Malibu, like Carbon Beach and Broad Beach, have long been inaccessible to outsiders, with vertical pathways from Pacific Coast Highway either owned by the county or granted easements by state agencies, but never being developed. The default result is that most people visiting Malibu believe that the 17 marked and open paths to the beach are the only legitimate access ways.
“I know people in Malibu who live close to the beach,” Price said. “But they have to get in their car to drive 2 miles to find a way to the beach.”
The problem is that the city’s own coastal plan, written by the California Coastal Commission, calls for an access path every 1,000 feet, which would mean about 105 open pathways. The cost of such development can be prohibitively expensive.
It is more that issue than any desire to “roll up the drawbridge and keep everybody out” that prevents further access development, City Councilman John Sibert said.
“Jefferson [Wagner, a former councilman,] and I got the city moving to open access to Dan Blocker Beach,” Sibert said. “We get complaints all the time about no beach access, but the easements are there.”
City Manager Jim Thorsen said that there are currently 52 recorded easements on the books, with about half available to use, and the rest are owned by other state agencies and in need of being developed.
“Some of these access points go down steep ravines or over rocks,” Thorsen said. “There simply might not be the money to develop them. We’re happy to work with those property owners to help them. We can’t fund them, but we can permit and facilitate the environmental impact studies.”
Thorsen pointed out that 6.5 miles of beachfront are developed with facilities like bathrooms, all available to locate on the city’s website.
Lt. Jim Royal is the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department’s liaison to the city of Malibu and said he doesn’t expect the new app to change anything from the department’s perspective.
“Remoteness often equals access problems, whether it’s a beach or a canyon,” Royal said. “We are responsible for the visiting public and people who live in Malibu. An app isn’t going to change how we come to help if there is a problem.”
Price believes her app is offering a great public service, directing visitors, for example, to a small Caltrans-owned beach lot with an unlocked gate at Las Flores Beach. It has attracted a flurry of press from the Los Angeles Times and other outlets, although Price says she has received strong input from Malibu residents, and it is not always positive.
“It is not the septic tanks in Malibu that are leading to poor ocean water quality,” one resident e-mailed Price. “It is the public using the beach as their toilet.”
“A true environmentalist would not develop such an … apparatus,” another wrote. “What value does this have for society? Or do you think the almighty dollar will keep these ‘beaches’ pristine for all? Congrats on adding to the pollution.”
Price said she has long heard arguments against facilitating public access to beaches and said that many homeowner concerns are legitimate.
“But I’ve never heard ‘Let’s look at some solutions,’” she said. “Maybe this app will help reduce conflict since signage is inadequate. Maybe it will help facilitate action by public agencies so that everyone benefits. People still say ‘private beach,’ when the beaches are for everyone. There needs to be a shift in consciousness.”
The “Our Malibu Beaches” app is available at the iTunes store and is free to download. An Android version will be available later this summer.
This story first appeared in The Malibu Times.