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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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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A WHO'S WHO OF MALIBU'S OTHER BEACHES

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.

Carbon

  • 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.