It’s been a decade-long haul for the 123 property owners on Malibu’s Broad Beach Road, as they have struggled to save their houses from the ocean. When the once broad beach (giving the street its name) dwindled to almost nothing, an emergency rock revetment, or wall, was put up in front of 78 of the homes back in 2010 to save them from destructive wave action during storms. Shortly after, a neighborhood Geological Hazard Abatement District (GHAD) was formed with the power to assess properties and collect funds to fix the problem. The goal was to bring in tons of sand from somewhere else to restore the beach and serve as a protective barrier.
Unfortunately, no one realized that what sounded like a simple, straightforward project at the time would end up costing about $25 million (and counting) before any sand ever made it to the beach.
“It’s a stunning mess,” said one property owner who asked to remain anonymous. “The millions they’ve spent doing everything but putting sand on the beach … If you own 50 feet of beachfront, you’re paying an assessment of about $70,000 per year. Some owners have 150 feet of beachfront. Some people have had to sell their homes because they couldn’t afford the assessments.
And imagine being told by the [California] Coastal Commission that 20 feet of your property must have a sand dune with native plants on it, and you won’t be allowed to walk on it,” the property owner continued. “The last few years, we’ve seen a series of bizarre engineering reports … The people are spending all their time arguing with each other and not being productive. The beach used to be one big fraternity, and now everyone is angry. Lawyers and engineering firms have been getting $60,000 to $100,000 per month for years … When you get everybody in a room, you can’t get the lawyers on the GHAD board to stop being lawyers—they’d rather spend money on lawsuits than settle … This whole thing has just gone on for too long and it’s too expensive. Everyone is jaded.”
“I think it’s true that everyone wants to protect the beach,” wrote another property owner, who also wished to remain anonymous. “It should be done consistent with the law, which provides that neighbors are not required to subsidize the benefits to others.”
“In my opinion,” the owner continued, “the GHAD has not treated property owners with the kindness, dignity or respect which one expects, nor has the GHAD been as transparent as their representatives have stated. Not included in the current project are important public benefits, the inclusion of which would make it more acceptable to both the home owners and the coastal commission.
“In my mind, those who object should sit down with the GHAD board members and in person work through each element of the assessment once the current environment allows us to meet safely,” the owner wrote. “That’s common sense. We’re all neighbors living on the same beach.”
When the California Coastal Commission finally granted the GHAD a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) in 2015 to bring in the sand, its stipulations changed the property assessments. The commission decided no sand could be placed at the far west end of Broad Beach because it was an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA), meaning west-end property owners would not really benefit from the project. However, those properties were still part of the GHAD and are still being assessed.
As part of the CDP, the commission also asked that 12 acres of former dune habitat on the beach to be restored on private properties. According to court records, the encroachment on private property parcels by the dunes habitat restoration ranges from 26.93 to 43.8 percent.
In addition, the commission stipulated every property owner whose parcel didn’t already allow public access sign a “springing license” to allow it. A patchwork of 47 parcels in the GHAD already allow lateral public access, but the rest do not.
A number of property owners balked at the coastal commission requirements and still have not agreed.
When the GHAD passed a new, increased assessment for each property in 2017, approximately 19 of the 123 property owners filed lawsuits. That group, which now calls itself the Broad Beach Dune Reef Association, and not a legal entity, wants to find a more “reasonable, cost-effective and sustainable” way of saving the beach, according to attorney Robert Scapa, who represents one of the individuals.
“The assessment went from $440/foot of beachfront to $1,600/foot of beachfront over five years,” Scapa said. “The GHAD has spent $11 million in legal fees and $8 million in engineering fees so far.”
LA Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, a judge whose name may be familiar after he pulled no punches and ruled against Sheriff Alex Villanueva in a case last year, also ruled against the GHAD’s assessment in September 2019 (with final statement of decision in February 2020).
The court declared the GHAD assessment “constitutionally invalid” because it didn’t properly separate public benefits from “special” benefits. In other words, private property owners can’t be assessed for almost the entire cost of sand replenishment on a public beach.
The judge also ruled the 2017 assessment invalid because the project couldn’t be “built as proposed” because of some owners refusing to meet the coastal commission’s requirements.
GHAD attorney Ken Ehrlich confirmed that the court’s decisions were being appealed. In the meantime, he said the GHAD fixed the specific deficiencies in the property assessments pointed out by the court, exactly as directed.
“I want to be extraordinarily clear that that the GHAD has done everything the court asked,” he said in a phone interview.
“The entire assessment has been reformulated,” Ehrlich continued, explaining that each individual property would now be assessed based on factors that include whether there’s a rock revetment in front of the property, the extent of the dune restoration required by the commission, and whether or not that property is getting any sand.
Although the opposition group claimed the GHAD should “freeze” and not move forward with a new vote or spend any money until the appeal is over, Ehrlich said LA County doesn’t agree.
Broad Beach homeowners now have a deadline of April 15 to make comments and April 26 to vote on the new assessment, although that date may be delayed until the novel coronavirus emergency is over.
Once the vote is taken, the next issue is most likely resolving the coastal commission’s stipulations—whether that means negotiating with homeowners who object or renegotiating the CDP.