Oregon Governor Oswald West in 1913 signed legislation designating its ocean beaches as public highways. “The shore of the Pacific Ocean from the Columbia River on the north to the Oregon and California State line on the south, is hereby declared a public highway and shall forever remain open as such to the public.” Driving on the beach used to be common, as did the sight of a motorist frantically trying to get free from soft sand before an incoming tide claimed the vehicle. The law was revised in 1947, changing “public highway” to “recreation area.” In California, beaches are also, by law, public. The wealthy and the famous find that outrageously unfair to them.
Hollister Ranch, near Santa Barbara, is in the news as property owners are back in court fighting the California Coastal Commission’s efforts to allow public access to the public beach fronting their properties. The conflict goes back to 1982 when an easement was granted to the state for beach access. Owners claim letting the public onto the public beach would be a detriment to the coastal environment. Property owners include Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne and movie producer (“Titanic”) James Cameron.
Near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco, Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla has been fighting a six-year battle to keep common people off the beach in front of the property he purchased at Martin’s Beach for $32.5 million. He recently offered to grant an easement for $30 million.
The famous Malibu is the standard bearer for the never-ending struggle to keep hoi polloi off beaches that God intended only for the rich and famous. Entertainment mogul David Geffen has been the most public face in the battle to keep people out.
Paradise Cove restaurant has recently been coerced by the California Coastal Commission to quit charging $20 for access to Malibu beach through its property.
The Bad Boys surfers “club” at Palos Verdes has for decades used physical intimidation to keep interlopers away from “their” beach.
Back north in Oregon, the matter was resolved much more quickly. In 1966, the owner of the Surfsand Resort in Cannon Beach, thinking he had found a loophole in the law, fenced off the beach in front of his hotel. Access was restricted to guests staying at the resort. The following year a bill was introduced in the legislature to clarify the definition of “beach.” Some beachfront property owners and their minions in the state legislature fought the proposed law. Governor Tom McCall strongly advocated and promoted its passage. Portland station KGW-TV initiated a letter-writing campaign in favor of the new law, resulting in a flood of mail to state representatives. What was known as the “Beach Bill” passed by wide margins in the House and Senate. The law gave the public permanent easement up to the vegetation line and put the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in charge. It was a major public-relations victory for the Republican governor and helped solidify his legacy as a champion of land-use planning. Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland, on the site of what was previously a major thoroughfare, is tribute to his leadership.