Geffen forced to surrender beach paradise to the great unwashed

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The Independent US

All of a sudden, life is no beach for David Geffen, the billionaire film and recording industry mogul whose sprawling residence along one of the most exclusive stretches of the Malibu coastline has played host to starlets, hot-shot producers and the occasional President.

For 22 years, the only way for the uninvited to glimpse his blue-and-white Cape Cod-style home was to squeeze down an unsignposted coastal access path almost a mile away and walk along the sand past an intimidating (but legally meaningless) forest of "Private" and "Keep Out" signs. Hardly anyone bothered.

Now, though, the wall of multi-million-dollar homes that once kept the great unwashed away from the surf and the dancing dolphins of Carbon Beach has been definitively breached. After years of legal struggles, Mr Geffen has been forced to open up his once heavily padlocked side gate and watch helplessly as the great unwashed parade past his patio, his swimming pool and his guest compound, and set up their umbrellas and beach volleyball games where his unimpeded view of the ocean used to be.

The first triumphant group of public access activists and curious locals spilled through the gate in a symbolic victory march - complete with champagne - on Thursday. The general public will be able to enjoy the same privilege from 10am on Monday.

Chances are, though, none of them will catch a glimpse of Mr Geffen himself, who was glaringly absent on Thursday and greeted his distinctly unwelcome visitors instead with a barrage of video surveillance equipment and a team of private security guards who proved extremely vocal any time they suspected someone had strayed even an inch off the public access way.

The activists didn't seem to mind, raising their champagne glasses at one point right where a security camera was pointing and proclaiming, as they have done since the start of this battle, that the beach - even this super-exclusive stretch of beach - belongs to everyone.

Jayna Mims, who lives on the distinctly unfashionable non-beach side of the Pacific Coast Highway, right across from the Geffen spread, couldn't believe her luck when she saw the double gate open. She rushed over with her eight-month-old son. "I've lived here 12 years and have never been able to cross the street and go to the beach," she said. "We could see it and smell it, but we couldn't touch it."

The battle pitting the people against one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood goes back to the planning negotiations over Mr Geffen's property in the 1980s. At first, the City of Malibu and the state Coastal Commission baulked at his plans to combine four separate parcels of prime real estate and turn them into a single luxury complex. They relented only when Mr Geffen agreed to have the side gate designated as a potential public access route.

It seemed like an insignificant technicality at the time, because neither the city nor the Coastal Commission had any intention of putting up the money to fulfil the legal requirements for a public access way - a caretaker to open and close the gate every day, and someone to clear away any rubbish left by visitors.

That, though, was before a group of private Malibu citizens began a campaign to assert their rights over the beach - which is legally recognised as public property from the water up to the mean high-tide line. The group, calling itself Access for All, raised enough money to maintain the Geffen public access way during the summer months and challenged him to hand over the keys to his padlocks. Mr Geffen, supported by the City of Malibu, responded in the time-honoured manner of all aggrieved celebrities, by filing a lawsuit. He did not have much of a legal leg to stand on, and his suit - 36 pages of elegantly phrased huffing and puffing - seemed designed primarily to bury his adversaries in costly paperwork. Three years on though, with the courts consistently siding with Access for All, Mr Geffen relented.

Before handing over the keys a couple of weeks ago, he made a few adjustments - paving over the sand to delineate the public walkway, adding a second set of gates at the beach end of the path and building up high walls on either side.

The arguments will no doubt continue over the precise terms of the public access agreement - the 9ft wide walkway, the 10ft privacy buffer in front of Mr Geffen's swimming pool, the precise delineation of a 225ft long public beach area and so on. Mr Geffen will have to hope that the novelty of tramping through his property will wear off quickly, and that the great mass of summer beach-goers will continue to prefer the well-worn sands of Surfrider and Zuma beaches, which are several miles up the highway.

He has, of course, other houses where he can take refuge from the great beach invasion, but his little piece of private paradise by the seashore will never be quite the same again.