Malibu's Bizarre Sand War Pits Celebrities vs. Nature


Steven Spielberg, Steve Levitan and Dustin Hoffman are among the 114 homeowners (average price $7.8 million) trying to buy sand to refill Broad Beach -- and outraging environmentalists in the process.

But it's not so simple. Critics of the homeowners' plan begin at sea. Although Ehrlich claims "offshore sand is abundant, and bringing it onshore has got fewer environmental impacts than taking it from somewhere inland" and even goes so far as to suggest that Broad's approach could serve as a model for the California coastline moving forward. S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey who's a national expert in offshore sand deposits, disagrees. "The sand resources off the California coast are quite limited," he says. "If you map the seafloor, there are a lot of areas where there's nothing, just bedrock, and you can't just dredge any material you can find. It has to be compatible with the native beach: the right grain size, the right composition of minerals, the right gradation of sediment."

Furthermore, those who have this rather precious resource nearby, such as well-heeled Manhattan Beach, aren't too eager to let it go, in part because they might one day need it themselves. And, as Williams notes, once a pit is dredged, it typically refills with "the wrong kind of material" (often, comparatively more fine-grained sediment) that is not worth harvesting again for the same purpose. As Manhattan Beach Mayor Wayne Powell told the local Daily Breeze newspaper in September, "What I would say to the Broad Beach folks is, 'Keep on moving.' "

By mid-November, cowed by the prospect of a legal fight with the city to the south, the homeowners had given up on the Manhattan Beach site.

At Broad itself, environmentalists are concerned about how the new sand could affect critters in the tide pools by the northwest end of the beach. (On Jan. 1, the pools were just designated as a state marine protected area.) "They have several different important species living there," says Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay's coastal resources director.

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Advocacy groups and coastal erosion experts alike might be even more worked up about the beach's emergency rock revetment being kept permanently intact, as the homeowners wish. They believe the armoring should be removed -- or, if the property owners insist on keeping it, at least moved closer to their homes. (It currently straddles public and private land "in what is an absurdly seaward location," according to Costas Synolakis, a USC engineering professor specializing in beach erosion.) Abramson of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation argues that wherever such a revetment is found -- L.A.-area examples include the stretches abutting the seafront Chart House and Gladstone's restaurants farther southeast -- the sand inevitably erodes. "The purpose of it is to protect the structures behind it, not the beach in front of it," he says. Bill Patzert, an oceanography researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agrees: "Keep this seawall, lose the beach. It's pretty simple."

To all of this, Grossman professes a mixture of bafflement and irritation. "I can understand objections if we were unleashing wild animals or placing nuclear waste on the beach," he says. "But sand? Give us a break."

The homeowners insist the revetment is necessary to protect their homes. Also at issue: the underground septic tank systems in their backyards, which are in more imminent danger -- and pose a risk of polluting the ocean to boot. (Slow-growth-minded Malibu historically has opposed the creation of sewage lines, as it only encourages further development.) Nancy Hastings, the Southern California field coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, offers an alternative solution. "Does this just delay the consideration of contemporary technologies that are already common in Third World countries without access to water: dry-composting toilets and waterless toilets?" she says. "And who better to be trying out this technology than these influential celebrities? It seems like a win-win."

The planned reconstituted dunes are another point of contention. Residents can't wait to have them back, partially for their beauty but also for the privacy. "I really liked that people could walk up and down the beach and couldn't look in my windows," says Susan Disney Lord, daughter of Roy Disney, who lives in a Cape Cod-style house once owned by Neil Simon. "On Carbon, people can look right in." Adds Steve Needleman, the owner of the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A., who calls Billy Wilder's former beach cottage home: "Who am I hiding from? I don't care. But I've seen how prying the paparazzi can be here, scoping people out with their long-range lenses."

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The environmentalists are especially irked by the homeowners' proposals for the new dunes, which include 114 individual footpaths for each house (bisecting what is supposed to be an "environmentally sensitive habitat area," which the public is forbidden from walking on). In addition, they can't believe that the residents have asked for the ability to select plants from an approved list for the areas that front their property. One advocate notes: "Shouldn't a trained expert be selecting and placing all of these species simply with what's best in mind for the dunes? It shouldn't be, 'Oh, honey, this primrose would perfectly match our Ralph Lauren linens inside!' "

The residents, meanwhile, see their motives as pure. "We can't imagine there being a negative environmental impact to restoring the beach to its former self," says Levitan, flatly. "Here we are, taking this project on, doing something that will provide great benefit to the public in an incredibly environmentally sensitive way, and we're not asking for one penny of taxpayer dollars. It's a no-brainer."

Regardless, critics believe that in an era of global warming and rising sea levels, any artificial restoration of the beach is simply futile, and they note that Broad's residents essentially have admitted as much, since their plan, which only funds the initial restoration plus an additional round of sand nourishment a decade later, is at its best a perpetual stopgap measure. Thus, they wonder why other ideas aren't at least being considered. "That kind of property is worth a lot of dough, so putting money into it to retain it is a reasonable investment," says Abramson. "But perhaps raising their houses" -- on, say, stilts -- "would make more sense?" Some environmentalists go much further, advocating what's known as "strategic retreat." In other words, abandoning oceanfront property as a loss before it might be consumed by the sea (though no one can predict when that might happen, if ever).

Above all, many believe the plan to schlep in more sand every 10 years is naive. The State Lands Commission's report itself explains that "the beach could narrow to present conditions, at least at the west end, within three years." As JPL's Patzert observes: "Mother Nature has a tendency to beat you. A big El Nino season could undo it all. One winter could sweep all of these millions right back out into the ocean."

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The Colony

  • Who's There: Jason Statham, producers Brian Grazer and Neal Moritz, former Univision CEO Jerrold Perenchio, former Viacom chair Jonathan Dolgen
  • Median Home Value: $10.8 million
  • Why It Sizzles: Unlike Carbon Beach, it's set back from the Pacific Coast Highway, and it's on a private street, which gives it an advantage over Malibu Road properties (Mel Brooks is down that way) on the same stretch of sand where the median value is only $7.3 million. The neighborhood's July 4 tennis tournament -- the clubhouse is the home of Lighthouse Entertainment's Steven Siebert and his wife, Gersh partner Leslie -- is a hot ticket.


  • Who's There: Larry Ellison, David Geffen, Eli Broad, Haim Saban, lawyer Bert Fields, Jerry Bruckheimer, producer Bill Mechanic
  • Median Home Value: $9.5 million
  • Why It Sizzles: Known as "Billionaire's Beach" for its adoptive species -- Geffen, Broad, Saban, Ellison -- it lies just east of Malibu Pier. In 2007, Geffen, unhappy with the overnight accommodations in the area, opened the posh Malibu Beach Inn. This past summer, Ellison, who picked up his ninth Carbon property for $36.9 million in September, saw one of his commercial oceanfront parcels turned into the new Nobu, luring the likes of Larry David and Zoe Saldana.

La Costa

  • Who's There: Relativity Media chief Ryan Kavanaugh, business manager George Savitsky, producer Tom Pollock, hospitality impresario Peter Morton
  • Median Home Value: $6.9 million
  • Why It Sizzles: The stretch east of Carbon is best known for its eponymous private beach club, of which many neighbors are members. Prices steadily drop and the luminaries grow sparser the farther east buyers look along PCH. But those driving in to Malibu from the Westside often prefer the quicker commutes of the city-proximate eastern beaches.

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