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A stand in the sand

A movie star's former estate is the focus of a fight to keep California's coast open to the public.

By Laura Mecoy -- Bee Los Angeles Bureau

Published 12:01 am PDT Saturday, July 29, 2006
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee

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A family enjoys a picnic at a cottage at Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County earlier this month. The state restored the cottages, and rents them out. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

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SANTA MONICA -- The beach north of the Santa Monica Pier was once such an exclusive playground for America's elite that it became known as the Gold Coast.

Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, his mistress, Marion Davies, and silent-screen star Norma Talmadge were among the rich and famous who built opulent estates here in the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, any Hollywood wannabe or everyday beachgoer can frolic in the surf or ride a bicycle on the Gold Coast.

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Yet activists say wealthy landowners are trying to limit access to these storied sands by suing to stop a project that would restore Davies' former estate and open its pool, tennis courts and other facilities to the public.

The plan's supporters -- relying on a little-known provision of the state's Coastal Act that calls for affordable beachfront facilities for the public -- contend all Californians should have access to the same amenities at a public beach club that the wealthy enjoy at nearby private clubs.

For coastal access advocates, the Santa Monica project is a potential beachhead in long-running battle to keep the state's 1,100-mile coastline open and facilities along it affordable.

After years of fighting well-heeled celebrities to open pathways to the beach, access advocates say the Santa Monica beach club represents a rare opportunity for economical accommodations along a coastline where most hotels and other facilities are out of the reach of many Californians.

"The $400-a-night hotel rooms are everywhere," said Mark Massara, California Sierra Club Coastal Programs director. "The new campgrounds are nowhere."

Disputes over access to the beach and lower-cost oceanfront facilities date back to 1972, when California voters approved the Coastal Conservation Initiative that created the Coastal Commission and sought to open the state's shoreline to the public.

The Coastal Act requires public paths to the beach and along the shore in new developments and some other projects.

This provision has triggered the most publicity because coastal property owners blocking those pathways are often among the state's wealthiest.

In Malibu, for instance, music mogul David Geffen generated headlines and jokes in "Doonesbury" when he refused to open a path to the shore alongside his Carbon Beach compound. He relented last year, and a local group opened the passageway.

Celebrities Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg and Dustin Hoffman were among the Malibu residents criticized for hiring security guards to shoo away beachgoers at Broad Beach and dredging a sand berm last year that temporarily blocked access to the shore.

Attracting less attention is the part of the Coastal Act's access provisions that says "lower-cost visitor and recreational facilities shall be protected, encouraged and, where feasible, provided."

The Coastal Commission and other state agencies have tried to ensure the public's access to these facilities. But coastal access advocates said the job has become increasingly difficult as coastal prices soared.

Almost all the large coastal proposals in recent years sought high-end luxury resorts, golf courses and other facilities serving the wealthy.

In exchange for development permits, the Coastal Commission often requires luxury resort developers to donate land or money for campgrounds and other affordable accommodations.

The California State Parks Department also scuttled plans for an expensive resort at Orange County's Crystal Cove because of the public outcry over the high cost of the proposed rooms.

Instead, the department restored 22 of 46 dilapidated Depression-era beach cottages on the cove and made 13 of them available to the public at below-market prices. The prices range from $30 per night for a hostel-style room to $165 per night for a two-bedroom cottage.

The cottages opened June 26 to such demand that they're booked within 10 minutes of becoming available at the first of each month. And that's for reservations seven months in the future.

"That just goes to show the depth of need for facilities of this kind because there are very, very few along the coast where you can go that are even reasonably priced," said Susan Jordan, California Coastal Protection Network director.

Coastal campgrounds are booked months in advance in the summer, and even modest beach motels are often expensive.

"We have an exploding population and an exploding inventory of luxury accommodations and nothing else," Massara said.

The Sierra Club coastal programs director said a new trend in coastal development -- hotel condominiums -- would deny even wealthy overnight guests access to some hotel rooms.

Developers of these projects sell part of their rooms as condominiums, giving the owners exclusive use of those rooms during part of the year. The hotel condominiums have created such controversy that the Coastal Commission has scheduled a public workshop in August on the subject.

Against this backdrop, coastal access advocates call the Santa Monica project a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an affordable place for families and to preserve a piece of history.

The club would have a pool, paddle tennis courts, lockers, a snack bar and meeting rooms available for free or at affordable rates. It would also preserve the seven-bedroom guesthouse of the grand estate Hearst built in the 1920s and gave to his mistress, Davies. Julia Morgan, the architect behind the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, designed the buildings.

"It was the grandest house on the Gold Coast," said Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. "Hearst had been collecting for San Simeon … and all the interiors were real antiques from English manors."

Later owners tore down portions of the estate. Only the original pool, the guesthouse and a sea wall remain. The 1994 Northridge earthquake caused such severe damage that almost all the property was red-tagged.

The Annenberg Foundation gave life to the city's plans to turn the site into a beach club when it pledged nearly $30 million to the project last year.

Santa Monica officials made concessions to the neighbors, including round-the-clock security and limited hours of operation at the club.

Chuck Levy, the Palisades Beach Property Owners Association president, said homeowners sued when they realized they couldn't legally enforce the city's promises.

The homeowners have offered to drop the lawsuit if they get a binding agreement from the city, and the city requires a stoplight at the club's entrance.

"Go ahead and have a public club," Levy said. "But we live here, and we want to make sure some things are required in case the city pulls the rug out and says it can change (the operations) whenever it wants."

A spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, Dave White, said the agency has already agreed to the stoplight, although details remain to be worked out about its operation.

But Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver said the city wouldn't give the homeowners a legally binding agreement because it would set a precedent for future deals with residents.

The club's supporters claim the homeowners' demands are a smoke screen aimed at delaying the project long enough to drive up costs and kill it.

"Everyone knows there is a ticking clock on this project," said Joel Brand, chairman of the organization backing the beach club, Friends of 415 PCH.

He recently staged an afternoon rally on the beach outside the fenced-off Davies estate.

Youngsters played in the mud. Professional sandcastle builders created a 7-foot castle, and activists and neighbors shared pizza and hot dogs.

Ann Kashuk, a retired homemaker who owns a condominium next to the site, came to show her support. She said she shares many of the same concerns as the homeowners who sued. But she didn't join the lawsuit because she believes the city will fulfill its promises.

Surveying the rally's party-like atmosphere, Kashuk said she looks forward to sharing the Gold Coast with others.

"The club would be such an improvement for the beach and for the residents of Santa Monica," she said. "Hopefully, it will be a go … and this beautiful beach can be open to more."

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Coastal access advocates hope Marion Davies' Santa Monica Beach estate, top, will also be opened to the public. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

The Davies' estate stays locked until the fate of a plan to make it public is decided. Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

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There are 2 comments posted so far. Below is a sampling of the latest comments.

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  • ruth_blank at 10:31 AM PST Saturday, July 29, 2006 wrote:

    My family stayed at Santa Monica several years ago and it is wonderful! We found an apartment hote...more

  • njoy00 at 12:11 PM PST Saturday, July 29, 2006 wrote:

    Public access would be nice. Last time I drove down there the walls between the houses are so high a...more

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