By Noaki Schwartz
The Associated Press
MALIBU Before descending between cliffside mansions on a narrow public path to one of the world's most beautiful beaches, it helps to know a few things about the law, the locals and maybe have a bit of luck on your side.
While California's Coastal Act of 1976 ensures beach access, the rich and famous who want to keep the state's dramatic coast exclusive have been posting bogus "no parking" and "private beach" signs here and elsewhere. They've done it so effectively for so long in Malibu that unfortunate beachgoers occasionally get ticketed.
"It doesn't sound like a big deal to put in a sign or two," said Linda Locklin, of the California Coastal Commission. "But pretty soon if you have all the public access ways with signs or gates, it's a huge problem."
From the craggy cliffs outside Crescent City to the the soft-sand beaches of San Diego, the commission has fought for decades to lift barriers to the coast, but it concedes it's losing the mounting battle amid budget constraints that have threatened more than the promise of safe passage to the sea.
Development projects the agency must review are put on hold, communities are left without an updated blueprint for regulating growth along their shore and the state can't process paperwork to accept offers of free land.
Since 1980, while inflation has increased 160 percent, the commission's total funding has risen only 9 percent from $13.5 million to $16.3 million and at times been cut nearly in half. The commission's full-time staff has been slashed from 200 in 1980 to 138 today; only 11 enforcement officers investigate violations along the 1,100-mile coastline.
"We haven't had an officer north of San Francisco since 2001," said Lisa Haage, the agency's chief of enforcement. "A dairy farmer started burying his dead cows in the dune wetlands at the mouth of the Eel River and then he started dumping everything cars, batteries. It's a full day drive and then we can't pay for a hotel."
With so few watching, residents have built illegal homes on wetlands in Del Norte County near the Oregon border and developers have graded over coastal sage scrub in the Santa Monica Mountains. They were eventually caught and are in the process of being punished, but the damage was done.
Officers can only resolve about a dozen complaints a year, leaving hundreds of other cases languishing from complaints about neighbors constructing fences without permits to a developer not building a promised public walkway.
"We do the best we can but things fall through the cracks," said Peter Douglas, the commission's longtime director. "It's been an extremely frustrating experience."
Voters established the largely independent, quasi-judicial commission in 1972 out of growing concern that rampant development would eclipse the state's world-famous beaches, as well as the average person's ability to get there. The commission is composed of 12 voting members appointed by the governor, the state Senate Rules Committee and the Assembly speaker.
Coastal programs in other states don't have the reach or legal muscle of the California Coastal Commission thanks largely to the Coastal Act. The law placed a priority on public recreation over private development, created protection for nesting birds and other animals, and gave the agency authority to enforce the law.
But critics charge that the real problem is the commission itself, which they say mismanages its funding by tackling minor land use decisions that should be left to local communities instead of focusing on development issues with statewide impact.
"They're a very aggressive, very pro-active bureaucracy," said Fred Gaines, an attorney who regularly represents property owners against the commission. "Their view of preserving coastal resources is being anti-development down to what size light bulb you can have in your front porch light."
The commission has raised the ire of powerful people, including Gov. George Deukmejian, who was elected on a platform to demolish the commission and promptly cut funding from $13.5 million in 1980 to $6.9 million in 1983.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget for next year would keep funding levels about the same as this year's $16.3 million.
These days, there isn't enough money to send staffers to out-of-town meetings or to hire an agency spokesman. Times got so tough at one point that the commission decided to save money by punching their own holes in paper instead of buying it prepunched.
"You have to understand that all of this translates into a lack of adequate protection for the coast," said longtime commissioner Sara Wan. "The real thing that suffers is the coast itself. If staff can't do its work, the commissioners can't and the purpose of the Coastal Act is undermined."
Coastal residents, meanwhile, continue to seal off their part of paradise by painting curbs red indicating a no parking zone and even hired security guards to chase away would-be surfers and swimmers.
David Geffen, the film and music mogul, famously battled for decades to stop the public from using a stretch of Carbon Beach in front of his Malibu compound, citing concerns about traffic, privacy and the potential environmental harm sunbathers would cause.
Geffen relented this year, 24 years after he failed to provide a promised public walkway in exchange for a remodeling permit. The commission forgave him for blocking access and agreed to let him build a buffer to keep the curious off his property.
A nonprofit advocacy group, Access for All, now maintains the path next to Geffen's home.
Steve Hoye founded the group out of frustration over efforts to discourage sunbathers and beachcombers from traipsing past Malibu homes that can sell for tens of millions of dollars.
Only the most determined visitors find the gems hidden along the 27-mile stretch of Malibu coast.
"People love California's beaches and identify with them," said Hoye, who successfully fought to open gates that blocked public access to beaches. "Without the Coastal Commission we'd simply have the rich guys going in and taking them."
But the fight continues. Case in point: After orange traffic cones discouraged parking near Lechuza Beach on a previous Memorial Day, someone removed the sign this year that pointed the way to the beach.
State officials replaced the "Beach Access" sign last week so people can find their way to the water at least until another ploy stops a new wave of beachgoers.