With Hands Tied, Council Approves MRCA Beach Access Improvement

“The public has a right to be there, but we have a duty to make sure that things are as safe as possible. So how do we reconcile those two issues?” Council Member Laura Rosenthal mused during the Monday, July 23, Malibu City Council Meeting. 

The philosophical quandary between granting public access and providing safety and cleanliness amenities has existed along the 27 miles of Malibu for decades longer than Malibu has been a city, but with tensions between homeowners and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority nearing a crescendo in 2018, Malibu City Council found itself in a bind on Monday when reviewing an improved beach accessway proposed for some MRCA property at 20516 Pacific Coast Highway, just up the beach from Moonshadows.

As council members saw it, the stewardship of the MRCA—based on prior concerns over trail maintenance in other areas of the city—would not be adequate to supply the public with a safe, clean beach. But denying access was never on the table.

“If you were to deny the [permit], you’d still have an accessway and a public beach—just not well improved,” City Attorney Christi Hogin explained later in the meeting. In other words: Council could not do anything about the public right to access the beach. All they could do was vote to make the access safer, or deny the improvements.

Currently, the 147-foot-wide stretch of beach is accessible via a wooden stairway that was built by neighbors without a permit. A newly-engineered stairway project also comes with requirements for the MRCA to install other features such as a guardrail, pathway and trash receptacles, to be emptied at a minimum of once per week.

Earlier in the meeting, Council Member Skylar Peak said he would deny the project if he could, based on a litany of concerns.

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“I’m inclined to make a motion to deny the project just based on public safety,” Peak said. “I don’t think it’s safe to have a public access on the highway and adding more areas that we’re promoting where there’s not adequate parking, there’s not restrooms and there’s not public safety within a decent distance.”

“There’s no lifeguard here, there’s been two drownings here,” Peak later continued. “It’s an unguarded beach. I don’t see what the benefit is to the public in having the accesses here where people die.”

Jessica Nguyen of the MRCA said that safety and cleanliness concerns would be addressed as soon as the improvements were made.

“Yes, beach access exists here right now, but it’s unofficial because the existing stairway that’s there now is unpermitted—built by neighbors to get down to the beach—and it has been going on for a long time,” Nguyen said. “There had been no previous control in the sense that rangers have not gone out there and things like that.

“What we’re trying to do is put in a safe stairway so people can safely access the beach, but by implementing this project, we are also going to dedicate resources to this site to keep it as clean and safe as possible because once we put up signage we can enforce rules,” Nguyen continued.

Mayor Pro Tem Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner suggested the project could also serve as a way for the embattled MRCA to improve its image in Malibu.

“I think this is an opportunity for the MRCA to … wear a badge of honor and say, ‘Look, we’re bringing this beach to life and we’re going to conduct business here in a proper and fair manner and show the public that their financial responsibilities are being met as far as trash pickup, ranger visits and closing of the gates and monitoring the site,’” Wagner said, later adding, “You acquire the properties, you develop the properties, and you need to maintain them for the public benefit.”

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