For years, multimillionaires have been bullying beachgoers in Malibu, Calif., trying hard to keep them away from the pristine—and public—sand and surf.
The sneaky homeowners have used orange cones, phony no-trespassing signs, security guards and fake garage doors to prevent regular folks from accessing the beachfront.
One resident on Malibu Road even planted hedges to hide an accessway, said Ben Adair, co-founder of Escape Apps, which partnered with environmental writer Jenny Price to develop a new app called Our Malibu Beaches. The app shows users exactly where each public access point is along the 20 miles of Malibu coast absorbed by private development.
“People pay tens of millions of dollars to live on these beaches, and they want to think that the public space that’s there is not public,” Adair said. “They have a hard time acknowledging that they built their house next to a really awesome public resource. They don’t want to share.”
There is no such thing as an all-private beach in California, but Malibu’s rich and famous—the mile-long Carbon Beach has been dubbed Billionaires’ Beach—have been trying to keep the general public off the sand for years. (Learn more about the area in "Meet Billionaire's Beach.")
The goal of the app: to “free the beach.”
“It is one of the biggest problems that we have with public space in the L.A. area, is that the Malibu beaches are so hard to get to and so hard to find,” Price said in the project’s video on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
Beachfront homeowners have found creative, and sometimes illegal, ways to conceal accessways.
The California coast is supposed to have public beach access every 1,000 feet, Adair said, but in Malibu, it’s easy to go miles without hitting a public accessway. Entertainment mogul David Geffen fought a long court battle, which he ultimately lost, to prevent the opening of a public walkway next to his property.
This really rankled Price. She’s spent more than 10 years working on projects to make the public beaches in Malibu actually public, culminating so far in the creation of Our Malibu Beaches. She raised more than $32,000 from more than 800 backers on Kickstarter in order to make the iPhone app free all summer and to develop an Android version.
In the buzz surrounding its launch this month, some Malibu residents expressed their resistance to the app, which is described in Apple’s app store as an “owner’s manual” that uncovers some of Los Angeles’ “biggest secrets.” The app helps beachgoers locate entrances to the patches of public beach, as well as public parking.
In a letter responding to a Los Angeles Times front-page column on the app, Wendy Lender—whose parents have had a home on the beach in Malibu since the 1950s—said there are no facilities for the public, like bathrooms or garbage cans, near their home.
"When people plan a day at the beach, does it not occur to them that the beach is not their toilet or trash can? Unless you have an amazing ability not to have normal bodily functions, please head to a public beach that is capable of handling your mess," Lender wrote.
But Adair said that the app is just as much about respecting private property as it is public.
“People now have the tools to go out and use these beaches to the fullest and not get in trouble,” he said, noting that before, beachgoers may have trespassed on private property without realizing it.
The laws regarding what is public land and what is private land are a bit confusing when it comes to the beaches. The general rule of thumb, however, is that wet sand is public land. But in Malibu, some dry sand areas are public, and the app brings those areas to light.
Although some Malibu residents have complained, Adair said the negative feedback hasn’t been overwhelming. Most complaints from beach residents are similar to Lender’s—that beachgoers trash the beach in the absence of public facilities.
General user feedback has been positive, he said, including comments from Malibu residents who don’t live on the beach and had no idea they were so close to public accessways.
“The app lets people go out and enjoy all of these beautiful and gorgeous beaches that can be really hard to find, really hard to get to and really hard to use,” Adair said.