Malibu's Bizarre Sand War Pits Celebrities vs. Nature
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Modern Family co-creator Steven Levitan moved his own family to Broad Beach a decade ago, lured by its pristine water, killer views and -- perhaps most of all -- by its wide swaths of sand, perfect for jogging and touch football. But these days, Malibu's most secluded stretch of oceanfront real estate isn't exactly living up to its name.
"You can't walk down the beach, except when the tide is very low," Levitan says. Erosion has caused Broad's sand -- including its beloved Martha's Vineyard-esque dunes -- to wash almost entirely away, its namesake width diminishing to a narrow nub. This has threatened houses and required the installation of an unsightly emergency rock seawall. Levitan now finds himself at the center of one of the biggest turf wars in Malibu history, as Broad Beach has become the flashpoint of a cresting controversy over sand, surf and septic tanks. It's pitting the shore's wealthy, well-connected homeowners -- among them Steven Spielberg, Michael Ovitz, Dustin Hoffman and Ray Romano -- against a band of environmentalists, public access advocates, scientists and government officials.
The source of the conflict: the residents' ambitious $20 million proposal to dramatically reshape the area by dredging in 600,000 cubic yards of sand from one of several targeted "borrow sites" at the bottom of the ocean. (They have ranged from Ventura Harbor in the north down to Dockweiler Beach and Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County.) Homeowners have hired engineers, scientists and other consultants to devise a plan to bring in large quantities of replacement sand by barge. In a process called "beach nourishment," the project would, like a plastic surgeon wielding a Juvederm filler syringe, carefully sculpt the more voluptuous shoreline of yore. If successful, the plan would be the ultimate Hollywood reboot, a transformative feat of engineering and chutzpah that, despite its size and scope, would require only a few months to complete, expand the waterfront for all beachgoers and be fully financed by taxes the residents are ready to levy on themselves. "We'd be restoring the beach to what it looked like decades ago," says their attorney, Ken Ehrlich, "and we'd be providing 100 times more public access to the beach than exists right now, since it would all be public beach seaward of the dunes. It's a tremendous benefit to the public -- unprecedented in the state."
But opponents believe the residents' plan is merely a shortsighted scheme that will primarily benefit property owners, if it works at all, and might incur disastrous side effects for the coastline. "What they are proposing is just going to exacerbate the problem," says Mark Abramson, senior watershed adviser at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation. There is a widespread belief that the homeowners' proposal is not a magnanimous gesture offered to a cash-crunched state. Rather, they see it as a self-serving one designed to enhance the beachfront of a wealthy few (the beach has 114 homes in all with an average price of $7.8 million). Many also argue that the houses themselves have contributed to the erosion by suffocating the natural flow of sediment due to the structures' shoulder-to-shoulder development over the decades -- a theory that the property owners dispute. For her part, California Coastal Commission engineer Lesley Ewing believes a number of factors are at work, including the past damming of nearby Trancas Creek as well as larger changes in general wave pattern behavior against Broad's shore.
The State Lands Commission originally was scheduled to hear the case in Sacramento on Dec. 6. But it was forced to delay its ruling to an undetermined date in early 2013 to allow for an extended public comment period through Dec. 21 after interest in the 712-page project analysis report -- which details wide-ranging potential environmental impacts and was itself paid for by $500,000 in fees by homeowners -- proved unexpectedly high. The debate is sure to become one of the hottest topics in Malibu politics in years.
"What's going on there isn't exactly Mauritius" -- the tiny Indian Ocean island republic existentially imperiled by rising sea levels -- "but I can fully understand the anxiety," says a resident of adjacent Lechuza Beach. "Their beach is just gone as we knew it."
Along with Carbon Beach and the Colony, Broad Beach -- situated at the northwesterly end of Malibu, past Point Dume -- exists at the apex of industry desirability. Pierce Brosnan has a house there. So do A-list producers Walter Hill, Avi Arad and Marc Platt. The list goes on: crisis management guru Michael Sitrick and screenwriter Steve Zaillian, the recently split Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, former Universal president Sid Sheinberg and top business manager Robert Philpott, the widows of Carroll O'Connor, Frank Sinatra and Jack Lemmon.
It's clear the residents believe the beach is worth saving. They adore its remoteness, its rustic quality, its closeknit community vibe and how, unlike many other equivalent Malibu strips of oceanfront homes, it's discreetly set back from the noisy, high-speed Pacific Coast Highway. "The further up the coast you go, the more privacy you have," explains nightlife impresario Rande Gerber, who lives not too far away with wife Cindy Crawford and recently considered opening a home-style diner immediately across the street from Broad Beach, at the Trancas Country Market.
Hollywood has called it home for generations. In the early '60s, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy rented a house on the beach for three years. The following decade, Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen shacked up there. Ronald and Nancy Reagan liked to stay for a week or two at a time. Dinah Shore, part of a later wave replacing the original cottages, caused a commotion when she hired a helicopter to bring in big steel beams for her new pad. "People were buying these houses, which weren't grand things, tearing them down and building their own," says Marian Hall, author of Malibu: California's Most Famous Seaside Community.
Everyone loved the come-as-you-are, open-back-door social scene. Then-ABC president Elton Rule's tennis court was a popular destination. So were impromptu volleyball games on the beach. As a child, Ryan Kavanaugh, the one-day Relativity chief, would find himself playing Frisbee with next-door neighbor Walter Matthau.
Frank Wells, the Warner Bros. and Disney exec, pioneered the now-common practice of renting barges for Fourth of July fireworks shows in 1983. After he died, DeVito carried on the tradition. An even longer practice has been the kind of social drinking reminiscent of a Cheever short story. Half a century ago, many homes would fly their personal cocktail pennants atop flagpoles when the appropriate hour arrived, an invitation to neighbors to stop by.
These days, there's no such established formal signaling but nearly as much conviviality. "I can think of several times, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a swimsuit at 11 in the morning, where I've walked my dogs and I don't return until after dinner because I've been invited to one house and then another and another, all spontaneously," Levitan says. "That's just how it is around here."
Broad's salutary effect isn't limited to locals. "It's quite conducive to resolving complex lawsuits," says Marshall Grossman, an A-list entertainment attorney who likes to hold mediations at his beach house. "One of the more memorable ones was for [my client] Mariah Carey and EMI. We had a very successful mediation here with Bert Fields. We got the case settled, and Mariah was walking around the beach with her Hello Kitty boombox."
However, amid all the fun, an increasingly troubling undercurrent has been at play at Broad for decades. In the mid-'70s the beach began eroding, its shoreline in time advancing inland 65 feet. The loss was mostly steady, each winter's storms methodically depleting the coast (aside from several El Nino events that took sizable tolls), though the process has accelerated within the past 10 years.
Alarmed, residents eventually began fighting back with sandbags and sand berms, a decision that in 2005 ran afoul of the California Coastal Commission's Coastal Act, resulting in a lawsuit against the homeowners' association for moving public beach. The Commission then issued emergency permits for more sandbags and other temporary protections -- many of which property owners never removed, despite the fact that the not-so-temporary protections were violating state law. "It's been a troublesome location," observes Pat Veesart, Southern California district enforcement supervisor for the CCC.
It also has been troublesome for public access advocates. As the mean high tide line -- the edge of the wet sand -- advanced over the years toward the houses and in time nearly abutted them, the public was pushed inland, too. (The Coastal Act mandates that any land seaward of the line belongs to everyone.) Wary property owners took to installing no-trespassing signage along the beach to clearly demarcate their territory and had the homeowners association hire private security to patrol its borders on ATVs. Many nonresidents found the signs misleadingly placed and the rent-a-cops hostile. (Access issues have arisen in recent years elsewhere along the toniest sections of the Malibu coast, most famously when David Geffen lost a lawsuit and was forced to allow a public walkway to be built alongside his Carbon Beach compound in 2005.)
Still, a 2010 storm, which took yet more sand and seriously damaged two Broad houses, proved decisive. The distraught homeowners spent $4 million creating, under yet another emergency permit, what's known as a "revetment" -- essentially a 36,000-ton rock seawall running in front of their homes almost the entire length of the beach. More than 30 feet wide and in places up to 17 feet tall, it's ugly and tricky to traverse without twisting an ankle. But it has held the erosion at bay. (The homeowners plan to cover this revetment in sand and re-create the characteristic dunes, which have all but disappeared, on top.)
Yet according to a prominent local real estate agent who declined to be named so as not to jeopardize relationships on the beach, the bad buzz has hurt property values at Broad, which already had taken a beating from the recession and the erosion. "It's got a stigma right now, with all of this uncertainty about the future of the beach," the agent says of buyers' hesitation. "People are avoiding it."
By 2010, residents had had enough. They needed a true fix. So they organized themselves into a legal entity called a Geologic Hazard Abatement District (GHAD) with the authority to assess what turned out to be $20 million in fees apportioned by each homeowner's total footage of beachfront. The board of directors includes Levitan, Grossman, local commercial property developer Zan Marquis, Global Icons CEO Jeff Lotman (whose agerncy represents the branding interests of the Hollywood Sign and Walk of Fame) and lawyer Norton Karno (known for his work on behalf of the Church of Scientology, he was named by L. Ron Hubbard as the executor of his will). The goal is nothing less than a complete rebuilding of the Broad Beach from four decades ago -- one that might be better equipped to withstand the ravages of nature.