In simple terms, Malibu’s Broad Beach used to be just that: a broad beach.

But anyone familiar with the area for the past decade (or two) knows that isn’t the case now and hasn’t been for a while. It’s easy to see there is a problem with disappearing sand dunes and homes closer and closer to the water’s edge, but what can be done to counteract the shoreline erosion is another matter—one a recent court decision has sent back to square one.

The project that has been in the works since 2011 has been blocked, after a group of homeowners from Broad Beach filed a petition for writ of mandate to keep it from moving forward.

As far back as 2005, homeowners began looking in earnest for a solution to their disappearing shoreline—bulldozing in tons of sand to build a berm (apparently with no permit) before being halted by the California Coastal Commission. 

According to a May 2011 Malibu Times article, erosion began to speed up in 2009, pushing homeowners to take official action, which began two years later. 

In June 2011, local homeowners got together in the hopes of finding an acceptable solution to shore up the beach before water began to threaten their homes. 

That year, the Trancas Property Owners Association formed a 123-member GHAD—a geologic hazard abatement district—as a way to collect funds to protect the shoreline in front of homes along Broad Beach. Each affected property would be part of the district, and properties were assessed according to their stake in the project. 

In the 2011 Malibu Times story, it was predicted the project would begin in 2012 and cost $12-13 million.

By 2017, without one grain of sand added to the beach, that estimate had exploded to $50 million every 10 years—“The project calls for 300,000 cubic yards of sand to be dumped on the beach every five years for 20 years, with periodic supplemental deposits of up to 75,000 cubic yards on an as-needed basis. The beachfront homeowners hope to create a 100-foot-wide beach and 60-foot-wide sand dune system to serve as a buffer between the ocean and the houses,” according to a 2017 Malibu Times article. 

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled on Tuesday, Sept. 17, that the solution that had been in the works since 2011—already racking up tens of millions of dollars in fees from local homeowners—should be thrown out.

“The court finds the GHAD’s assessment violated ... the California Constitution,” Beckloff wrote in his decision. 

The decision was based on three challenges leveled against the GHAD:

1. That “the GHAD failed to properly separate general benefits from the special benefits for the project”

2. That “the project as proposed cannot be built, thereby invalidating the assessment” and

3. That “the GHAD failed to adequately analyze the proportionality of the special benefits.”

On all three counts, the court found in favor of the group of homeowners petitioning for the writ of mandate.

As to the first point, according to Beckloff, the GHAD claimed simultaneously that the project “does not result in a public benefit,” while also arguing that the beach “often serves as an extension of spillover area from Zuma Beach.” 

Court documents quote the GHAD’s attorney at one point stating, “When restored, the new beach will serve as a natural continuation of LA County’s Zuma Beach, which is believed to be the most heavily visited beach in Southern California.” 

The distinction between general benefits and special benefits is important because “only special benefits are assessable.”

On the second point, the Coastal Commission ruled the project could only proceed if each property owner agrees to an “irrevocable temporary springing license that provides for lateral access over the revetment and strip of land immediately landward of it under certain circumstances,” as well as all affected landowners consenting “to allow the construction of ESHA [environmentally sensitive habitat area] dunes to restore habitat on their private property.” Therefore, if even one landowner did not agree to those conditions, the project could not proceed.

“At the time of the public hearing and vote, the GHAD knew the project as proposed could not proceed because the Coastal Commission’s conditions ... could not be met,” the ruling stated. That was because one property owner refused to provide the springing license and refused to agree to the ESHA dune habitat on their property.

For the third point, it was argued the GHAD failed to assess “two vacant county-owned properties with no evidence those publicly owned parcels receive no special benefit from the project.” Because the two properties were not assessed—meaning they would not have to pay into the project—“to the extent the county-owned properties were not assessed, the other property owners in the district were excessively assessed.”

Following the decision, representatives of the GHAD sent a letter to GHAD property owners that was shared with The Malibu Times, stating that the GHAD Board of Directors had authorized an appeal of the court’s decision. The letter also stated “the trial court ruling does not affect owners’ duty to pay the current assessment.”

A letter sent by the petitioners in the case—who were victorious in the ruling— stated, “Contrary to the blatantly false statements made yesterday by the GHAD, the Reef Group and 14 other homeowners prevailed in court with judgment to be entered against the GHAD denying their validation lawsuit and granting the invalidation claims.”

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