Fence to Stay Down at La Costa/Carbon Beaches

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It’s a decades-long story centering on two vacant adjacent lots between Carbon and La Costa beaches at 21704 and 21714 Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), which are now controlled by state agencies.

Last spring, residents in that vicinity replaced a dilapidated fence along that stretch of sand without obtaining permits. Within days, the new fence was gone, removed by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), which then opted to open the stretch as a public beach access point—without trash cans, restrooms, or a gate. The move was just the latest conflict between the public agency and Malibu residents. 

While residents express concern about sanitation, safety, and privacy in their neighborhoods, the MRCA’s belief in expanding public access to access natural areas drove their decision to immediately open the stretch for visitors.

A group of La Costa and Carbon Beach residents had it with the MRCA and its sister state agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC). The homeowners formed their own unincorporated association—Citizens for the Responsible use of Carbon and La Costa Beaches—and filed a writ of mandate and complaints for injunctive relief with the Superior Court of the State of California on July 21. 

In it, they asked for the agencies to restore the six-foot fence, apply for a coastal development permit (CDP) with the City of Malibu to open the beach access for daytime use only by the public, and comply with monitoring, policing, and maintenance near the beach access.

“My clients just want the [MRCA/SMMC] to comply with what they already agreed to do,” attorney Alan Block said in a phone interview at the time, referring to an agreement forged back in 2000 specifying that the state agencies in charge of those lots must put in place certain accommodations for the public before making it accessible. 

Block asserted that, by not replacing the removed fence, the agencies had allowed unrestricted public beach access without any public accommodations—which may have included a stairway down to the beach over large boulders, as well as trash cans, public restroom facilities, or signage. By opening the lots to the public at that time, the lawsuit also said the agencies “failed to comply with Coastal Act and CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] requirements.” 

The court, under the Hon. Mary H. Strobel, issued its opinion on Nov. 30, 2021. Based on the law and various legal precedents, she wrote that MRCA/SMMC had no ministerial duty under the Coastal Act to keep the “illegally constructed fence” in place, and that they also had no ministerial duty to apply for a City of Malibu permit. 

Strobel noted that the California Coastal Commission didn’t object to the MRCA’s removal of the “illegal fence,” and in fact advised SMMC that the wrought iron gate on the adjacent public parcel should also be removed for public access.

The court rejected the idea that the fence removal failed to comply with CEQA.

The head of MRCA/SMMC, Joe Edmiston, immediately sent a memo to his staff and the coastal commission claiming “total victory for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and public access,” who won their case  “against the private property owners trying to close-off Billionaire’s Beach.” He also thanked his legal team, noting the “superior lawyering” of Mitchell Rishe (deputy attorney general) and MRCA attorneys Angelica Ochoa, Elena Eger and Mario Sandoval.

In additional action, the homeowners asserted that unrestricted public access was causing a number of adverse nuisance impacts, including excessive demand for parking on PCH in the vicinity of the state-owned lots and long-term and overnight parking of RVs and campers next to the beach. In addition, they reported increased trash and litter in the vicinity. They claimed increased threats to public safety because of the state-owned lots being submerged during high tide. 

According to residents, there were instances of people trespassing on private property, including private beach areas, stairs, decks, and beneath decks and residences along the beach. In addition, increased criminal activity on and near the state-owned lots was observed, resident said, including alcohol and marijuana use, theft, vandalism, loud amplified music, public urination and defecation, and overnight camping on the sand. 

In response, the MRCA/SMMC submitted evidence of measures they had taken to address the nuisance concerns since June 2021, saying the MRCA staff now patrols, inspects, and maintains the properties daily, collecting litter, removing graffiti, photographing the condition of the property, and providing on-call ranger services 24/7.

The court said the homeowners failed to make it clear whether the nuisance was public, private, or both, and pointed out that they could always contact law enforcement “whenever third parties trespass or engage in other unlawful conduct at the beach.” The SMMC/MRCA added that as public agencies they are not responsible for the behavior of “third parties” (the public).

The court denied the homeowners’ motion for a mandatory injunction, saying they had failed to show the “significant irreparable injury” necessary to go against public agencies in the performance of their duties. 

Malibu’s liaison to the SMMC, Lloyd Ahern, was not immediately available for comment.