Public access: A

fine line in the sand

Although the outcome of an altercation between a beachgoer and a homeowner and Sheriff’s deputy remains unknown, it has raised again the issue of public beach access versus private property.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to the Malibu Times

Public access to Malibu beaches still walks a fine line these days. While there are particular, broadly identified pathways leading from Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, the subject of lateral beach access is less clearly defined. And the delineation of such public versus private sand can be cause for some heated debate.

Such was the case as reported by The Malibu Times in May, when Westside resident Jean Philippe Chabassier visited the beach near Malibu Road, using a public access way at Amarillo Beach to get there. Along with his wife, Catherine Deschamp, a teacher, and his 10-year-old daughter, Chabassier, a screenwriter and photographer, had been a Malibu Beach regular for years and was well aware of the often-ambiguous rules regarding public versus private property and lateral easements along Malibu’s beaches. Chabassier had told The Malibu Times that his family was relaxing on the beach well below the mean high tide mark on the beach, the line of demarcation for private property behind beach homes.

As explained by Steve Hoye of Access For All, a nonprofit activist organization fighting for public beach access in Malibu, the mean high tide mark essentially means “any sand that was left damp by rising tides within the previous 24 hours.”

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Each day, there are two high tides and two low tides. The ocean is constantly moving from high tide to low tide, and then back to high tide.

“Technically,” Hoye said, “the mean high tide mark is the midway point between the two high tides that occur about every 12 hours and 25 minutes.”

While that amorphous line can, indeed, vary every couple of inches along the beach, it is generally easy to note where the tide has been within the past few hours. And anything between the midway point of those two tides and saltwater is considered to be public property, Hoye said.

Chabassier said his family was observing that perimeter while on the beach in May.

Homeowner Elliot Megdal thought otherwise and ordered the Chabassiers to decamp. When Chabassier declined, Megdal called the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station and Deputy Wayne Watts arrived at the scene, repeating the order for Chabassier to depart from “private property.” When Chabassier called the Sheriff’s Department to try and resolve the issue, matters got sticky. Chabassier told the Times that Deputy Watts had grabbed his arm and demanded he hang up the phone. He said that Watts then twisted Chabassier’s arm behind his back and was placed into the deputy’s patrol car. However, Chabassier said Deputy Watts eventually released him after being told to do so by his superiors at the Sheriff’s station. Chabassier said no further action was taken against him and he declined to respond at the time when asked if he had engaged an attorney to pursue the matter.

Chabassier said he wanted to make sure he and his family had been well within their rights; he filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Department and consulted with the California Coastal Commission and Access for All to confirm that he had, indeed, been stretched out on public property. Shortly after the incident in May, Chabassier said Capt. Tom Martin of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station called to apologize and promised “an administrative investigation” into Deputy Watts’ actions. However, the Sheriff’s Department suggested at that time that there were plans to advise property owners to make citizens’ arrests for suspected trespassers when beach-goers strayed too closely to private boundaries.

Since then, Martin has demurred on those plans. As reported by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who covered this story in late June, Martin has simply said that the department would inform homeowners of their right to make a “private person’s arrest,” should they spot anyone encroaching on their property.

A call to the Sheriff’s Department about the outcome of the administrative investigation into Deputy Watts’ altercation with Chabassier yielded conflicting reports, at first. Sgt. Dustin Stillwell said he “believed that the investigation was completed” and, while not at liberty to discuss the results publicly, said that “no disciplinary action was taken against Deputy Watts” and that he was “still on active duty.” However, Lt. Debra Glafkides, Sheriff’s liaison to Malibu, said at first that the incident was “still under investigation.” A final message from Glafkides confirmed, “The Chabassier investigation was handled to conclusion and appropriately handled administratively… all administrative investigations are considered confidential personnel records. Therefore, there will be no additional information released relative to the… investigation.”

Repeated calls to Chabassier for further information went unanswered.

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