It’s probably wrong to gloat when other people fail, but when a billionaire fails to keep the public off of the beach in front of her 25-acre estate, it’s hard not to gloat.
On Dec. 17, Wendy McCaw lost a court battle against Santa Barbara County and the California Coastal Commission. McCaw, the wealthy-by-divorce owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, wants to get rid of an easement on her property that lets the public walk under the bluffs of her 25-acre beachside estate. She is outraged that the hoi poloi can just stroll about a mere 60 feet away from her house, stables, farmhands’ quarters, etc., etc., and says it’s an unjust intrusion by the government onto her land.
The land belongs to McCaw. The beach, as all California beaches do, belongs to the public. McCaw, citing her rights as a private citizen, doesn’t want other private citizens walking along the far edge of her property to get to their property. McCaw’s problem is that her land came with an easement that allows the public to walk along the far edge of her property, under the bluffs. About 20 years ago, the land’s previous owner made that deal with the county so she could build a sunroom for the guesthouse. McCaw claims the previous owner was unconstitutionally pressured into the deal. The courts, so far, aren’t bothering with the constitutionality of the easement since it’s 20 years old and it’s only possible to appeal it within 180 days. In short, the Second Appellate District court in Ventura told McCaw to take a flying leap and to pay for the Coastal Commission’s and the County’s legal bills.
Ha! It’s nice to think that members of the public can still get to their beach, which, as McCaw can attest, is quite beautiful, but it’s even nicer to think that every one who sets foot below her bluffs is annoying the billionaire. After all, McCaw sued to keep people off the public beach next to her one-eighth-the-size-of-Isla-Vista fiefdom and had the temerity to say she was fighting the little guy’s battle against big government. That’s our Wendy: an everywoman with 25 acres of beachfront property, billions of dollars and a mid-size newspaper. And if you buy that, we have a private beach we’d like to sell you.
Beaches are public lands because California’s citizens decided the coast was too unique, too beautiful, and too fun to walk, surf and swim along, to be fenced off. Easements are the deals the state strikes with beachfront property owners to make sure the rest of us can still go to the beach. McCaw’s parcel of land did not just come with a sunroom-enhanced guesthouse – it came with the easement the previous owner agreed to in exchange for the sunroom. She knew, or should have known, what she was buying.
McCaw, however, doesn’t see things that way. Her lawyer says she’s going to fight the appellate court’s decision in the California Supreme Court and, “if necessary,” the U.S. Supreme Court. If she wins there it’s going to be more than a little difficult to walk along that particular stretch of beach.
So, our advice to you is to use that beach while you still can. Have a cookout. Invite all your friends. Play music on a really loud boom box. And remember to wave to Wendy. She’ll be the one fuming from the bluff tops.