Are there any truly “private” beaches in California?
“No,” comes the confident — and seemingly definitive — reply from Linda Locklin, a beach access guru with the California Coastal Commission.
But of course, that clashes with reality for many a would-be beachgoer confused by signs, blocked from parking or flat-out intimidated from taking a spot on the sand. While beaches that are part of the state or local parks system are easy to visit, spots that border private property often feel inaccessible.
So what exactly are the rules governing coastal access in the Golden State, and who do you call when a beach is unfairly blocked?
Where you can be on any California beach
Locklin, whose formal title is coastal program manager, says the key term is the “mean high tide line.” That’s the point on the sand reached by the water when it’s surging furthest onto the shore.
At many of the state’s beaches, that accounts for plenty of room on the sand to lay out or toss around a football most of the day. The water is fair game, too — as far as the eye can see.
“California’s constitution guarantees all citizens the right to use the state tidelands,” Locklin told KTLA sister station KSWB. “Access for all.”
That seems straightforward enough. But the problem arises less with debates about the “mean high tide line” (not exactly surfer lingo, is it?) and much more with how people get onto the sand in the first place.
In areas where a line of beach- or cliffside homes border the sand, it can be difficult to get down to the water without crossing through private property, which is prohibited regardless of the public land on the other side. You can’t just cut through someone’s backyard or block their driveway because you’re headed to the public shoreline, and residents get exasperated with people tramping through their property at popular beaches.
But some homeowners go further, laying claim to paths and parking spaces that would allow the public to reach the sand, expanding beyond anything they have the right to restrict.
Locklin has seen it all, from fake “private beach” and “no parking” signs posted right on public thoroughfares to private security guards patrolling the sand and shooing people away in Malibu.
Angela Howe, a senior legal director at the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, added a few of her own. Curbs painted red by residents, lawn furniture set up in a public pathway — she’s even seen a fake garage door that made it seem like parking on a public street would block the home’s exit, she told FOX 5 in a phone interview.
There are also places where locals make visitors feel deeply unwelcome, like the infamous Bay Boys in Palos Verdes: surfers who operate with a “gang mentality.”
What to do about blocked beach access
Locklin says you don’t just have to deal with it if you find someone blocking beach access. The Coastal Commission has an enforcement arm that can investigate wrongdoing on the part of homeowners and impose fines, when necessary. You can report violations by following these instructions online.
If you’re wondering where a beach’s sanctioned parking or path to the water is located — whether you’re planning a trip or trying to confirm something is amiss — the commission also has digitized its coastal access guidebook.
Locklin and her team don’t just crack down on bad behavior — the commission also steps in to restore or create access points on stretches of the coastline that are lacking, using their permitting system to require a path.
In San Diego, for example, the commission is behind the restoration of the Princess Street Coastal Access Trail, a long-awaited path to La Jolla’s iconic shoreline. The trail will lead from the public street, between two large estates on the bluffs, and then down 50 feet to the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve.
A trail provided access down to the shore in that area until the 1970s, when a homeowner placed a locked gate on the trail. The Coastal Commission has been sparring with residents over reopening public access there ever since.
Now the new trail, created and maintained through a partnership between the Environmental Center of San Diego, Surfrider and other groups, is finally under construction.
Keeping homeowners from blocking public access and helping create new paths are two critical parts of Surfrider’s mission, Howe told FOX 5. But she and her team are also concerned about another trend: beaches disappearing altogether.
“You get these physical impediments, but there’s also sea-level rise,” she said. “That’s going to cut in drastically to beach access if we don’t act accordingly.”
In addition to general environmental advocacy, Surfrider pushes for habitat restoration and “managed retreat” programs that move developments back off the immediate coast in areas where the beach is slowly disappearing.
All the public policy and access angst aside, Locklin and Howe both encouraged Californians to get out and explore their local beaches worry-free this summer.
Especially after the pandemic, it’s all the more important to take a “mental breather” and “check-in with yourself” if you’re feeling a bit worn down, Howe said. “The beach is something that can help replenish that.”