Local couple settles with California Coastal Commission over private beach signage

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Latigo Canyon Road and PCH. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT

Case could set precedent for other Malibu beachfront property owners 

A Malibu couple has settled their case against the California Coastal Commission over the right to place signage at their beachfront property.

Dennis and Leah Seider bought their Latigo Beach home in 1980. Back then, neighbor Bill Armstrong, who lived in Malibu for 68 years, used to post “Private Property” signs on the beach fronting his home for decades. So, the Seiders did too. When COVID-19 struck, forcing the closure of public beaches, the Seiders were inundated with beachgoers on their property at all hours. Under California law, public access is available to the mean high tide line; under the Seiders’ deed, that access extends an additional 25 feet due to an easement granted by the previous owner extracted by the CCC in return for a development permit. 

Dennis Seider says he tried to alert people of the difference between a public and private beach, but that didn’t go over well. “We had people under the house,” Seider explained. “When the grandkids would come over, there would be people down there. Most of the time the public was nice,” but Seider said, others were belligerent and physically threatened him.

In April 2020, the CCC threatened the Seiders with accumulating fines up to $5 million if they did not remove the two 8-inch by 10-inch signs under their home. Neighboring homes also had “Private Property” signs posted; however, only the Seiders were targeted. “You can’t go after everybody,” Seider speculated.

The couple then applied for a sign permit with the City of Malibu. However, Malibu’s Local Implementation Plan, written by the CCC, did not allow for signage that attempted to distinguish between public and private property, according to the interpretation of the then-Planning Department director. At issue was the mean high tide line that could vary over time depending on sea level rise or loss of sand. The Seiders’ permit was therefore denied.  

“That sounded like a restriction on my freedom of speech,” Seider said “about posting a sign on my own house, which sounded very onerous.” Seider, a retired attorney, consulted with constitutional lawyers who advised him the law was probably unconstitutional because “it actually precludes free speech based on what you’re going to say … If you’retrying to say where public and private is you’re not allowed to say it. That kind of prohibition against speech based on its content in advance of your even saying it is unconstitutional.”

The Seiders turned to the Pacific Legal Foundation, who took their case. In 2021, the PLF filed against the CCC, citing First Amendment speech rights. The CCC tried to have the case dismissed, but was denied. Eventually the judge required mediation with a magistrate and the parties entered into a series of discussions, resulting in a February CCC staff recommendation that the Seiders be granted a permit for their signage. According to Seider, “the judge said, ‘You cannot prohibit someone from putting up a sign that’s truthful and accurate just because it might not be accurate sometime in the future.’ It’s the CCC’s fear that people will put up signs that are not truthful and discourage people from using the beach that it’s entitled to.

“The beach below the mean high tide line belongs to everybody,” Seider stated. “People can now put up a sign that designates what is public and what is private, which is something they could never do before. The staff guidelines that were adopted in the report on this case will serve as precedent for other beach properties,” Seider indicated.

Under the settlement agreement, the permitted sign verbiage is: “PUBLIC ACCESS EXTENDS 25 FEET LANDWARD OF THE MEAN HIGH TIDE LINE; NO PUBLIC ACCESS ALLOWED ON THE PRIVATE PROPERTY FROM THERE TO THE HOUSE.” Presumably, for beachfront properties without public access deed restrictions like the Seiders’, similar language without the reference to 25 feet should be permissible. 

The Seiders, who were forced to take down the signs during the legal process, reattached the signs when their permit was approved in March. The couple claims the beach is now calmer without trespassers. Feedback online has been positive. 

“I thinks it’s nice that I was able to do something for everybody and it makes me feel good when I can do something of value for my neighborhood,” Seider said. “One of the most valuable things we have in Malibu is the feeling of neighborhood. It’s what most people when they’re looking for places to live look for. They want something where people care about each other. It so happens we have a city in the middle of what should have been a national park andas a consequence we share it with a good number of people, probably as many or more than a national park entertains in the course of a year. That’s obviously going to create some friction.”