Here’s some distressing news for Southern California’s coastal elite: a new smartphone app called Our Malibu Beaches offers a “beach-by-beach battle plan” for all and sundry to access beaches claimed as private by Malibu millionaires. The NYT reports that the app will let hoi polloi in on the 74 percent of Malibu coastline made inaccessible to the public by the “one percent”:
[“Our Malibu Beaches”] has maps to often hidden entry gates, house-by-house descriptions showing public property boundaries and spine-stiffening advice on dealing with counterfeit no-parking signs (“feel free to enjoy and then ignore”) and threatening property owners (“they’re welcome to call the sheriff”).
This latest escalation in a seemingly never-ending battle is stirring questions of land use, property rights and privilege that have long been a source of tension in Southern California, a fight made all the more alluring because long stretches of beachfront are owned by well-known Hollywood figures, including David Geffen, Michael D. Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
As the NYT notes, this is mostly a problem of bad governance. The state law mandating public access to California beaches is poorly enforced: development rights on supposedly public property are frequently granted to homeowners. The California Coastal Commission has been so bad at enforcing state law that twenty miles of Malibu’s twenty-seven mile coastline are now blocked off from the public. So beyond the realm of law enforcement are many of these Malibu homeowners that some have built fake garages and put up fraudulent parking and property signs to stymie public access to their beaches.
Rich people hate it when ordinary people get on their “private” beaches. Some of their rage makes sense; lots of people don’t behave very well on beaches and leave them covered with litter and trash. Beaches without lifeguards can be hazardous; after a few beers people can lose all sense of caution. Rich people fear getting sued when nature takes its course.
But under provisions going back to English common law and before that to Rome, and incorporated into California law from the time that state joined the Union, beaches are not private property. The ‘wet beach’, the land between the average high tide line and the ocean, is public. A lot of the fight in California is about access; under what conditions does the public have access to the beach? Areas with a lot of wealthy homeowners would like to make access as difficult as possible, restricting parking, closing off beach access with fences and walls, and otherwise keeping hoi polloi at bay.
The state meanwhile has been fighting back, trying to require owners to offer ‘easements’ giving the public access to ‘dry beach’ above the high tide line and providing easier ways on and off the beach. And there’s an additional wrinkle; in many cases the public has long enjoyed a right of access to the beach even though the land in question was privately owned. A new owner may not have the right to put an end to this.
We are as fond of zillionaires as anybody else, and don’t wish undue distress on the hedge fund titans and movie stars who can afford huge oceanfront estates. More than that, we think the protection of the rights of private property is essential to all liberty. And there are some issues of public safety to bear in mind.
Still, there are some things in life that cannot be bought, and the beaches belong to us all. Our Malibu Beaches is advising the public about its legal rights, and helping people treat illegal ‘no parking’ and ‘keep out’ signs with the appropriate contempt and disdain. Far from attacking the property rights of the landowners, it is helping ordinary people understand and use their rights under the law. This is a good thing.
It is also a harbinger of the future. For very little money, ordinary people can use this app to get some very detailed and sophisticated legal information about their rights. There are many other situations in which this kind of knowledge would be useful. Expect many more handy legal apps to be produced outlining your rights in everything from buying a car to discussing your taxes with the IRS.
The law is information; the information revolution is going to give more people access to that information, and it is going to change the relationship of society to the law. Legal information has historically been extremely expensive, and the systems in place to administer and adjudicate legal questions have been slow and complex. One of the biggest consequences of the IT revolution will be a price, time and access revolution in the legal system. Our Malibu Beaches is just a start. A personal attorney is coming to your phone.
[Image of man drumming on beach courtesy of Shutterstock]