Malibu homeowners banded together to address sea level rise. A decade later, they are at war with the city, the surfers, and each other
This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.
Jefferson Wagner has struggled with more than one shark in his life, and he still carries the proof of his tete-a-tete with a Great White. When Malibu’s councilman and former mayor gives a thumbs up, he exposes the scar on his left thumb: “The shark tooth went in through the front and out on top!” With his sunburned skin, his gray shock of hair, and intense blue eyes, the lifelong surfer still looks like Clint Eastwood’s handsome brother. Wagner has indeed doubled Eastwood as a stuntman, modeled as the Marlboro Man, and worked as an explosives expert on set. But in Malibu, everybody knows Wagner as “Zuma Jay,” the owner of the legendary local surf shop near the historic Malibu Pier on Pacific Coast Highway that also serves as an unofficial town hall. Before the pandemic closed all nonessential businesses, residents strolled in all day to buy a wetsuit or share their civic concerns. “I’d rather have the respect of a million people than a million dollars,” reads the sign above the entrance. “People think we’re a bunch of celebrities and rich guys in Malibu,” Wagner says, only half in jest, “but the real Malibu is people like you and me.”
When Wagner looks out at the local beaches, he sees a shrinking beauty. Parts of Carbon Beach across from his surf shop have been artificially retained by “massive amounts of cement and steel” Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison poured to shore up his beachfront villas and Nobu restaurant. “He built his own island,” Wagner says, but he worries about the other nearby beaches, especially Broad Beach a few miles north. “Twenty years ago, this place was one of the most popular beaches in Malibu,” Wagner reminisces. “Now you don’t see a soul because you can’t find a dry spot to put your towel down.” Talk to any resident who has lived here for decades and they will tell you similar stories of how they ran up and down the coast as children and now have to wait for a very low tide to find any beach to walk on. “This is what we are known for: the beaches,” Wagner says. “What is left of Malibu if you take that away?”
Wagner lost his home and almost his life in the Woolsey fire in November 2018, and he still lives in a provisional shed on the land with his wife. The largest wildfire recorded in all of Los Angeles County burnt down his home in the Santa Monica mountains, along with nearly 100,000 acres and more than 1,600 other structures. The wildfire threat drove home the urgency of the climate catastrophe, but climate conversations still rarely touch on the other potentially devastating threat to the region: the rising sea.
Malibu, a town with only 13,000 residents, is world-famous for its A-list occupants and iconic beaches, which attract about 7 million annual visitors. Without intervention, the beaches could vanish within 100 years, according to the United States Geological Survey. “It’s right in our face,” Jack Ainsworth, the executive director of the California Coastal Commission, says. “Just look at the fire situation, the withering droughts and flooding events: Climate change is happening much quicker than predicted. This is our highest priority here, to deal with the looming disaster, and planning.”
A collective silence, punctured by a single gasp, falls over the crowd at the King Gillette Ranch in Malibu, where Alyssa Mann, who manages the Climate Adaptation Program at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, shows attendees at the California Coastal Commission’s board meeting a new virtual reality (VR) tool, the Sea Level Rise Explorer: Move a lever, and the tool will simulate possible scenarios—a normal beach day, a particularly high tide, a 100-year-flood, or the sea-level increase that scientists predict in the coming decades. Using the latest coastal survey of more than five feet sea-level rise by 2100, Mann shows the first 10 rows of homes in nearby Long Beach underwater. It’s one thing to hear scientists’ predictions in the abstract and another to see a familiar neighborhood flooded on the giant overhead screen. The VR drives home the reality of what’s to come, and so do new online resources for homeowners such as Our Coast Our Future or Flood Lab. Type in any address, and see what happens in a storm surge.
A recent study by the science organization Climate Central, published last October in Nature Communications, concludes that rising sea levels will impact three times more people worldwide than previously predicted. Even though sea levels have risen only about 9 inches in the last 100 years in California, experts warn that they could rise as much as 9 feet by the end of the century. The U.S. Geological Survey Report 2017 predicts that between one-third and two-thirds of Southern California beaches may become “completely eroded” by the end of this century. And the nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office recently chided the state for being behind on the issue, stressing that the actions taken now and over the next 10 years will be crucial in determining the fate of the coast.
Groundwater flooding cities in the region is an additional risk, says Kristina Hill, professor for urban ecology at UC Berkeley. “We’ve bought the ticket for this rollercoaster, given how much CO2 is already in the atmosphere, so we have to be ready; our choices have to be organized. The question is how much of that do we need to handle in our lifetime before things get really bad, and how much are we leaving for future generations to negotiate?”
Nowhere in Malibu is the urgency felt more acutely than in Broad Beach. Pierce Brosnan, Robert de Niro, Mel Gibson, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, Mindy Kaling, and other celebrities live on this peaceful 1.1-mile oceanfront stretch. For $110,000 a month, you too could rent the tasteful white seven-bedroom villa where Frank Sinatra used to entertain his neighbor Jack Lemmon. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy walked this beach arm in arm when they lived here in the 1960s. But since then, storms and erosion have battered the shoreline, and when the tide is high, there is no beach left in front of the rock wall. The FEMA map that Alyssa Mann also displays at the commission meeting shows clusters of repetitive flooding in Malibu. Looking out at the wet gray sand in front of the 13-foot-high rock revetment—a 36,000-ton rock wall between the homes and the ocean—some locals joke that Broad Beach should be renamed Slim Beach. “Visitor numbers are dropping because there is not enough beach,” Jefferson Wagner says.
The issue is not unique to Malibu, but the intensely developed coast makes Malibu a bellwether for how beachfront communities address climate change. “We’re looking at Broad Beach like a petri dish, waiting to see what grows out of this,” Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, coastal preservation manager of the grassroots environmental nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, says. “You have all these smart people there and all this wealth; they should be able to figure this out.”
In 2005, Broad Beach homeowners took matters into their own hands and illegally bulldozed sand from the shore closer to their homes to create a bulwark. All beaches are public land in California, and changing them without a permit is illegal; where, exactly, their private property line ends and the public land begins is often a matter of dispute, especially as beach width shrinks. But per the landmark California Coastal Act, passed in 1976, all land from the mean high-tide line down to the water is public—essentially, all the wet sand on the beach, including what was plowed up toward the houses on Broad Beach. Unluckily for the homeowners, a kite surfer spotted the bulldozers and alerted environmental activists from the Surfrider Foundation, and ultimately, the Coastal Commission forced the residents to dredge the sand back. “The hubris!” Stefanie Sekich-Quinn frets. “This is not your beach; this is our beach!” Referring to the homeowners’ septic tanks that might become exposed and leak into the ocean if compromised, Sekich-Quinn half-jokes, “We were considering making bumper stickers that literally say, ‘Move your shit!’”
Tensions came to a head when the Broad Beach homeowners hired security guards in fake cop uniforms to keep gawkers away. “Unfortunately, one of the people they tried to shoo away was one of our commissioners,” Jack Ainsworth remembers with a laugh. “She had all the documents to show them that they were in the wrong and that she had every right to be there, on the public beach.”
After a storm damaged several houses in 2010, the Broad Beach homeowners sought an emergency permit to create a revetment in front of their houses at the cost of $4 million. It’s still there today, but the sand is eroding, the permit has expired, and the ankle-twisting gray rocks lie bare in all their ugliness. About a third of Southern California’s beaches, including part of Broad Beach, are already armored with some form of seawall, but the Coastal Commission is increasingly reluctant to approve more walls, as sea walls have been shown to increase erosion of neighboring beaches. Four coastal states, including Oregon and Maine, have banned them altogether.
The Broad Beach homeowners wanted to pursue an unprecedented sand nourishment to cover the rock wall and recreate the sand dunes that were there once. This time, they tried the legal route.
The Broad Beach homeowners are the first (and to date the only) homeowners in the nation to form a Geologic Hazard Abatement District (GHAD) in 2011, essentially creating a public agency in order to apply for permits to nourish the sand in front of their houses. The plan sounded simple enough: Restore the beach to its 1960s glory by trucking in at least 300,000 cubic yards of sand on their own dime. This would mean at least 30,000 dump truck runs. The majority of the 123 parcel owners agreed to pay for the intervention, an estimated $20 million divided according to beachfront footage. “Everything was harmonious,” Kenneth Ehrlich, the GHAD legal counsel, explains. “Four years later we had the necessary permits. But then the dissent started.”
Critics call the sand-dredging plan, which needs to be repeated every five to 10 years as the sand washes away, “Botox for the beach.” They point to Torrey Pines in nearby San Diego County, where a storm washed away 320,000 cubic yards of sand in 24 hours. “Pouring sand on the rocks is like straining spaghetti through a colander that’s too large,” Sekich-Quinn says. “It won’t stick.” Even Jack Ainsworth from the Coastal Commission, who has approved the plan and emphasizes how curious he is to learn from the experience, says, “Two storms could wipe it all away.” Therefore, a dozen homeowners—some of whom hadn’t agreed to contribute in the first place, or bought their houses later—decided not to participate; they sued to stop the project and won. “I’m a retired professor, I’m not wealthy like these developers,” an elderly plaintiff says. (To protect her privacy, she asked that her name not be used.) “I can’t afford to pay. Besides, I am on the end of the beach that is not even getting sand.”
Many think of Malibu as a playground for the uber-wealthy, but the mega-rich often have other houses elsewhere, and the core of the community is the long-time locals, like the retired professor, who actually live here year-round. She says she cannot afford the estimated $70,000 per 50 feet of beachfront every year. In September 2019, County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff ruled that the resisting homeowners cannot be forced to participate, sending the GHAD back to the drawing board.
“We’d agree to 300,000 cubic yards of sand once, but not in perpetuity,” says another of the plaintiffs, Alex Haagen, a stocky shopping center developer in a black “Drill Malibu” tee who owns the Coachella Music Venue. “The costs are just going to escalate. They’ve spent almost $20 million on fees and studies and still don’t have a grain of sand on the beach. This whole thing could blow up.”
To propose an alternative, the retired professor, Haagen, and other critics have shown up on a Sunday morning at Malibu Elementary School for GHAD’s board meeting. The face-to-face showdown makes it immediately obvious that not only strategies but also personalities clash.
Environmental activists purposely mispronounce GHAD as “jihad,” to indicate what they think about the aggressiveness of the group. The GHAD chairman is real estate developer Norton Karno, who used to be Scientology’s and Ron Hubbard’s main lawyer; the vice-chair is Marshall Grossman, an entertainment lawyer who served as Billy Bush’s attorney after the Access Hollywood Trump tape came out. Men who do not shy away from controversy. Other members include Jeff Marine, the outspoken co-CEO of Hybrid Apparel, and real estate developer Shaul Kuba, a spry Israeli ex-soldier with piercing blue eyes who shifts uneasily in his chair as the participants bicker over who gets to speak. “We come here and cannot even be heard!” Haagen rages. “It’s offensive! Obviously you don’t want our ideas!”
GHAD counsel Ken Ehrlich is appealing the latest ruling. “Here you have a private community that has chosen to use its own money to respond to sea-level rise. The GHAD should be commended for taking into its own hand what the public sector won’t do. Neither the Coastal Commission nor the city of Malibu nor anybody else is doing anything about it.” Yet changes made to one stretch of the beach will affect the flow of water and sand farther down the coast. “It’s not their beach,” Sekich-Quinn keeps stressing. “Any time you have a hard structure, whether that is a home or a sea wall, you’re blocking the natural flow of sand. Then you have the wave energy come in and you have a double whammy, accelerating erosion.”
In the meantime, homeowners are fighting individual legal battles. The Klein family, for instance, wanted to replace their 3,000-square-foot single-family home at the end of Broad Beach with a new house double the size. They don’t live there, but had it listed online as a luxury vacation home at a rental rate of $1,000 to $3,000 a night. The city of Malibu approved the development, but this February, the Coastal Commission found the project “vulnerable to coastal hazards” and faulted the city for not using the latest science. The Kleins had accounted for 1.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, but the Coastal Commission says they now need to plan for 66 inches, or more than 5 feet, which means the house would need to be moved back, elevated, and engineered completely differently. “This is an important precedent not just for the city, but also statewide,” the commission cautioned. This is but one of the many lawsuits that will be fought over similar issues along the coast.
But this is not a simple rich guy versus the environment story; everyone is struggling to stem the tide. Even among the GHAD board members, frustration is mounting: “When I bought my houses, I was under the impression I would get 100 feet of beach,” Kuba says. “Next thing I know there are 10, 20 homes not getting sand. I am one of them. At the beginning, the project sounded so innocent and easy to do; we just get a boat from Manhattan Beach to bring in the sand. As the years went by, everybody realized this is a lot more complicated and expensive and maybe even questionable that it’s doable. Rather than continuing fighting, we should seek a solution.”
Nearly 10 years and almost $20 million since they started their quest, the Broad Beach residents have made no progress. The estimated costs have now ballooned to $70 million, the money initially allocated has been spent on permits and fees without having moved a bucket of sand, and they are at an impasse. Probably the only thing everybody in the room agrees on is that real long-term solutions are more complex than they had initially hoped, and there’s some willingness on both sides to explore a compromise or novel ideas for the future. “It’s the lawyers that get all the money,” the retired professor complains. “There is a large array of possible solutions here that are much more beneficial to homeowners and the public.” Forced by the latest ruling, the GHAD has agreed to reassess the payment structure, depending on factors such as which homeowners are getting sand. The Broad Beach homeowners have until April 26 to vote on the new assessment, if the vote is not delayed by the emergency restrictions due to the pandemic.
The critics of the sand-dredging proposal have banded together as the so-called “Reef Group” to propose an alternative solution: to build an artificial off-shore reef to protect their beach. They point to examples from Miami’s Sunny Isles Beach to closer locations in Ventura and Santa Monica where offshore reefs help to retain and replenish sand. “With a sand retention reef in place, erosion would be reduced by 45 to 50 percent, saving about $40 million or more,” compared to the GHAD sand nourishment plan, Haagen’s group estimates. “That means only half as much replenishment would be required as under the current plan.”
The reef has its fans among residents, experts, some environmentalists, and surfers. The surfers see their own turf at risk: Changing the sand might also change the waves, for better or worse. Jefferson Wagner, who has concluded that nourishment will not work, is starting a nonprofit he calls “Reef or retreat,” with the purpose of educating people up and down the SoCal coast about the tough choices at hand. As a first step toward gauging the value of a reef, Wagner tried to convince the city to do a wave morphology study for Surfrider Beach, the famous surf beach near the historic Adamson House where both the real Gidget and the film Gidget hit the waves.
“But when the bids came back, the city did not want to spend the $275,000 for the study.” He shakes his head.
Malibu is only slowly taking the first steps in assessing the risks. One of Wagner’s last acts when his mayoral term ended last September was to sign the grant application to the Coastal Commission so that Malibu would conduct its first vulnerability study over the next two years.
“Malibu is really at the beginning, at least at the level of city management, to figure out what the risks and strategies are,” Alyssa Mann acknowledges. “Which is crazy because they are one of the most at-risk communities.” But she also knows why: “It is very risky for elected officials to have these uncomfortable conversations and be upfront.”
Wagner points out how living breakwaters and offshore reefs have saved other parts of the California coast, but they were mostly built before the Coastal Commission was established in the early 1970s. “If you want to look at something that works very well, look at the Santa Monica pier,” Wagner says. “The beach is so wide they are dredging it. Or Ventura Harbor. Off-shore reefs work. It is our only potential way to protect our coasts.” The Surfrider Foundation just helped complete a managed retreat project in nearby Ventura, moving back a bike path and re-establishing sand dunes, but crucially, that project did not involve moving homes.
The west end of Broad Beach, however, is part of a marine protected zone that Surfrider Foundation has “fought for with sweat and blood and tears,” according to Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, “and then have a couple of wealthy people come in and wanting to dump sand in it…”
Jack Ainsworth confirms that the Coastal Commission won’t allow a reef near Broad Beach because “it’s a protected area with very sensitive offshore habitat. These off-shore reefs are really not allowed in there.”
Critics beg to differ. Jefferson Wagner has looked extensively into existing reef projects and believes if the artificial reef is built with natural rocks, it could even provide valuable habitat for “Mrs. Crab and Mr. Mussel.” Kristina Hill acknowledges that sand dredging has to be done responsibly, in accordance with the best available science and by learning from past mistakes. She can easily recall projects that went horribly wrong, in Waikiki, for instance, where people drove dump trucks over coral sand that was meant to replenish the beach, crushing the mineral structure and turning it into a very dusty, dirty layer. But she also offers solutions for doing it right, “for instance taking the sand in thin bands rather than vast areas so that the natural flora and fauna can recover.” The sand also needs to be the right grain size and amount, “otherwise it’s just like throwing a handful of sand on your windshield and turning the wipers on.”
But while Jack Ainsworth does not rule out artificial reefs for other areas, the Coastal Commission seems set on managed retreat for Broad Beach as “the most important adaptation strategy,” as Ainsworth says. “I just don’t think we’re ready for it right now. And that’s because we just don’t have the funding and the capacity to deal with it at this point in time.
Living shoreline, nourishment, et cetera, all of this can buy you time,” he says before calmly stating the uncomfortable truth: “In the long run, we have to recognize that there are beaches that will disappear.”
This debate is repeating itself all along the coast. The GHAD wants to apply a Band-Aid to halt the immediate bleeding. The reef advocates recommend exploratory surgery, and the Coastal Commission has essentially issued a “do not resuscitate” order. But to really help this patient, the region might need to think bigger and bolder, as the Netherlands has done.
The choices are clear: Do nothing and lose the coast. Stall by dredging in sand, bouldering up revetments and emergency sea walls. Or look at long-term solutions such as the Sand Engine on the Atlantic Coast in the Netherlands, a massive sand nourishment project Kristina Hill calls “a wonderful example the international community could learn from,” while acknowledging that it is “five times bigger than anything we have done in the U.S.”
Since advising New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Kristina Hill has traveled the world to look at innovative solutions for sea-level rise, from floating communities near Rotterdam and Amsterdam to superdikes and the waterproof ground floor for the Hafencity in Hamburg. Hill is convinced that “landscapes can do an enormous amount of the work of adapting coastal cities to sea-level rise if we match them to the physical world that we live in in terms of wave energy regimes. These strategies, if put in place soon, could buy us time to develop similar tiered-development, floodable-development strategies for how we live in these shore zones. They might buy us 30, 40, 50 years before the rate of sea-level rise accelerates to the point where we have to really invest to make things work, but we could be planning ahead.” After seeing the innovations in Europe, she even believes that “we’re really looking at how to redevelop and not how to leave. I think of that in a positive way.”
The problem is that nobody has tried out these solutions on a coast with the specific challenges and high wave energy of beaches such as Broad Beach.
What’s at stake here is enormous: California could lose $180 billion in beachfront real estate and infrastructure. “The scale and the scope of it is mind-boggling,” Ainsworth says. Environmental activists such as Stefanie Sekich-Quinn even believe “these homes on Broad Beach should never have been put there in the first place.”
Alyssa Mann and several of the Coastal Commissioners use the word that has residents up in arms: retreat. Mann believes SoCal only has two choices: “Managed retreat or unmanaged retreat. In some areas, moving out of harm’s way is beneficial to enhance resilience.” Unmanaged retreat would look like Pacifica a little farther north in 2016, when erosion sent a dozen bluff-top apartments crumbling into the ocean.
Kristina Hill brings up the specter of Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast: “The law there says when your septic tank is exposed, you can no longer occupy your house. They will red tag it. Then they require the homeowner not only to abandon it but to pay to remove the structure. So you lose money on every dimension, the value of the property and the money to remove the structure. Imagine how people would respond in California if we told them that?” Few people might pity the super-wealthy, but California also cannot afford to lose its infrastructure: the Pacific Coast Highway, the railroad, or sewage treatment facilities.
It’s a frog-in-the-boiling-water problem: California has both too much time to act, and not enough. Too much because only the king tides cause the surge to splash over the decks, but not enough because with every year that the city does nothing, the sea comes closer. “Every dollar we spend in prevention now saves $6 in disaster mitigation,” Jack Ainsworth said at the Coastal Commission meeting.
But before they can act, residents and planners need to agree on the problem. Even on the Malibu Planning Commission, some believe they can keep the sea at bay by sticking their heads in the sand and claiming climate change is not a real threat. The community also faces other pressures: Real estate agents hope to keep selling multimillion-dollar properties and have formed the SMART California Coast coalition to fight the Coastal Commission on retreat. Senior local real estate agent Paul Grisanti, who was instrumental in forming the SMART coalition, dismisses concerns with the old trope that “the earth has always been warming and cooling.” Grisanti wants the state of California to compensate homeowners who might have to give up their homes, but when asked about whether some homes might simply not be able to remain, he refuses to discuss sea-level rise. “We don’t have a position on sea-level rise,” he keeps repeating, as if the denial could make it go away. Asked what he thinks of the recent IPCC reports and the Climate Central study, he responds that he has “not read them.”
“Most people who own coastal property are in their mid-50s, mid-60s,” Kristina Hill says. “When we talk to them about transition, they often say, ‘Oh, I’ll be retired and I’ll move inland,’ and they don’t take responsibility.” But she also points out the “people selling tickets to swim in that water. California and Florida are both in this marketplace where people are trying to sell you homes. Information is repressed and discounted that really should be part of making decisions about when to buy and when to sell.” California has hundreds of pages of disclosure laws, “about 200 pages worth of information, and yet sea-level rise and groundwater flooding are not in there. So... people often go by what their social peers say: ‘Oh, it’s not going to be that bad!’”
This denial is what has residents and environmental activists worried. “We’re losing valuable time,” Jefferson Wagner says. He has traveled to places that have forced people to abandon their homes, such as Louisiana, and has found it a dispiriting experience.
If Steven Spielberg hadn’t sold his Broad Beach compound for $26 million a few years ago, one could call this thriller a Spielberg type of saga, but Wagner fears it won’t have a happy end: “They will be deadlocked in court for the next 10 years, the Broad Beach homeowners will lose their front yard, the Coastal Commission will lose money in court and is eventually going to cave because they don’t have the funds to go up against all these rich people. Everybody is going to lose in the long run because nobody is doing their homework.”
But it’s a common Hollywood trick to make us think all is lost before the hero finds the Holy Grail. One is reminded of Charlton Heston, playing Taylor in Planet of the Apes, when he finally stumbles on the truth and finds the wreckage of the Statue of Liberty. The scene was filmed in Malibu, just east of Broad Beach.
Michaela Haas, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, reporter, and consultant. Her recent books include Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria/Enliven, 2015). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, CBS, Psychology Today, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas.