Testing public sands

Los Angeles Urban Rangers Jenny Price and Emily Scott demonstrate the identification and measurement of a public easement on a Malibu beach during a "safari." The group says its goal is to educate the public on how to enjoy public lands legally and safely. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Urban Rangers

A local group leads “safaris” to hard-to-get-to public lands, including the sands of Malibu.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

In the ongoing battle between coastal homeowners seeking to preserve their privacy and public beach access advocates (and the paparazzi), a small group who call themselves Los Angeles Urban Rangers has stepped into the fray. This group has armed themselves with easement maps, tape measures and a copy of the State Constitution in an effort, they say, to educate Angelenos on proper, legal and environmentally appropriate patronage of the county’s public recreational areas, including the public’s right to access California’s beaches, as defined in the California Coastal Act of 1976.

“Homeowners on Malibu beaches have legitimate complaints about trespassers on their property,” L.A. Urban Rangers founder and chief “Ranger” Jenny Price said during a recent tour of Carbon Beach. “So, we try to show people how to use public lands legally and safely.”

Wearing park ranger-type hats and self-identifying badges, the Urban Rangers regularly schedule “safaris” throughout the Southland, from Malibu beaches to the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, leading excursions designed to seek out the unexplored pockets of L.A.’s urban landscape.

Some of these pockets are found along Malibu’s coastline.

Malibu has a number of public accessways along 27 miles of beach, many of them pre-dating the Coastal Act. Several are known as OTDs, or “offers to dedicate.”

Linda Locklin, manager of public access for the California Coastal Commission, defined OTDs as lateral and vertical easements offered by homeowners in return for development permits.

“These accessways are maintained by a combination of county and private agencies,” Locklin said, citing the example of the access path next to music and movie producer David Geffen’s beach house, which is maintained by the nonprofit group Access for All, headed by activist Steve Hoye.

However, problems occur when beachgoers arrive at the beach. The Coastal Act decrees all land seaward of the mean high tide line as public. Some homeowners have negotiated further public access between their home and the shoreline for the right to develop, but not all.

“So, it’s a bit of a checkerboard,” Locklin said.

The Coastal Commission provides maps on its Web site (www.coastal.gov) denoting locations of public “dry” sand above the “ambulatory” mean high tide line. There is even a map dedicated to Broad Beach in Malibu, depicting where vertical (from the road to the beach) and lateral (alongside the ocean) accessways are located. The map is so detailed it tells how far inland from the water line public access is in front of specific property lots.

As Urban Ranger Nick Bauch said, “determining the mean high tide mark can be tricky. It’s supposed to be the high tide line averaged out over months. Basically, we mark it off by the edge of wet sand.”

With the availability of several public Malibu beaches outfitted with washroom facilities and trash cans, why are the Urban Rangers so keen to occupy the sands in front of less-than-welcoming homeowners?

“Well, all the beaches are so beautiful,” Price said. “And when you come down to it, everyone has the right to enjoy them.”

On a sand safari

On one safari several weeks ago, the rangers divided up participants into small groups, who were given canvas totes loaded up with tools required to “trail blaze public versus private boundaries.”

Each group was tasked with locating a specific public access beach area, according to maps provided by the Coastal Commission, measuring and marking those boundaries and then engaging in “typical beach activity, whether it was yoga, sunbathing or reading trash magazines,” Price said.

The groups busied themselves, pulling out tape measures and poking small, wire stakes in the sand that had been topped with colorful paper cocktail umbrellas.

Price, a writer who lives in Venice, said the Urban Rangers were originally created as part of an exhibit at the Pasadena Arts Center and became a sort of roving urban planning group of citizen educators.

“We’re not activists,” Price said. “We want people to have a nice day at the beach and avoid conflict with homeowners. Broad Beach has a long history of confrontation with nonresidents over beach access and we try to explain that, in the end, we’re trying to educate the public so that their property is safe from unintentional trespassing.”

Just as Price finished his sentence, an irate occupant of a home several yards away from the group came out to his deck and started shouting at the group.

“May I step up to your deck, sir, so that I can tell you who we are?” Bauch asked.

Ignoring Bauch, the homeowner chastised the group for being a public nuisance.

“You are not educating, you’re agitating!” the man yelled. “You have an agenda. And, besides, dogs are not allowed on the beach,” he directed to one observer.

Several dozen beachgoers were strolling on the beach with their pets, both leashed and unleashed, however, Malibu Municipal Code forbids dogs on public beaches.

The group decamped to another area, and Price led a group chorus of Woody Guthrie’s anthem to national freedom, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” before everyone prepared to go count public accessway off Malibu Road.

Dania Rodriguez, visiting from Silver Lake, said she joined the Urban Ranger safari to learn about beach access rules.

“I don’t want to do anything wrong,” Rodriguez said.

Another participant, who declined to give her name, lauded the Urban Rangers for trying to “uncomplicate a complicated situation with public access.”

“Let’s go,” Bauch called. “Remember, wet sand is public beach!”