Scouting out Malibu beaches? Get 'em on the phone

When environmental writer Jenny Price first began scouting for ways to get to Malibu's beaches, she drove up and down Pacific Coast Highway but did not spot a single sign pointing "this way to the beach."

Shrubbery obscured stairway openings. "Private property — no parking" signs dotted public streets. Once she got to the sand, she found "No trespassing" and "Private beach" placards. A security guard at Broad Beach shooed her away.

"You have these miles of beachfront in Malibu," she said. "It's one of the most egregious examples of privatization of public space in Los Angeles."

Interactive map: Guide to Malibu beaches

For the last decade, Price has written opinion pieces about tactics homeowners use to make beachgoers feel like trespassers. She has posted beach guides online. She has helped lead Malibu beach tours. She has made it her mission to show people how to enjoy Malibu's 27 miles of oceanfront, even the beaches hidden by the homes of the well-heeled.

Now she has gathered her years of hard-won knowledge into a smartphone app called Our Malibu Beaches. Her goal is to help beachgoers outfox privacy-loving millionaires and open up the coast once and for all.

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Price, 52, a St. Louis transplant who lives on a Venice walk street, has trouble explaining her fascination with the beach. "I'm more of a mountain person," she said, "but I always end up at the beach."

She comes by her dedication to social justice naturally. When she was a child in the 1960s, her parents fought for racial equality in St. Louis, and her attorney father defended people on the McCarthy-era black list.

Price and co-developer Escape Apps plan to release the program for iPhones and iPads next month and hope to expand to Android devices.

The app leads users along Lechuza, Escondido, Carbon and other beaches, house by house, to aid in locating spots where they can legally plop their towels and pop open sodas.

It helps them divine which "no parking" signs are legitimate and which have been placed illegally by homeowners to scare away beachgoers. It encourages users of Carbon Beach, in particular, to move the orange cones that residents often place — illegally — to block off public parking spots.

At music mogul David Geffen's gray-shingled compound on PCH, Price points out a curb cut that leads to a short driveway and a dazzlingly white, and sealed, garage door.

"He's blocking off about four public spaces," she said. (The California Coastal Commission said it asked the California Department of Transportation to look into revoking Geffen's encroachment permit in front of the fake door but got no response.)

Just west of that garage door, white wooden gates look like an elegant extension of Geffen's home. From sunrise to sunset, however, they open onto a 9-foot-wide concrete walk that leads to Carbon Beach, a.k.a. Billionaires Beach, where visitors might catch a glimpse of bigwigs such as Eli Broad, Haim Saban and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The opening of the gates in 2005 marked a rare victory for beachgoers.

Geffen had agreed in 1983 to allow an access path — a "vertical easement" — to run alongside his property in exchange for the state's permission to add a swimming pool and other amenities. Then he changed his mind and filed suit to fight efforts to open the walk. The case gained national notoriety when Garry Trudeau lampooned the DreamWorks co-founder as "Lord Geffen" in his "Doonesbury" comic strip, which featured former sun worshiper Zonker Harris' return to Malibu. Geffen eventually relented to end the court battle.

Price cheekily labels this the Hooray for Hollywood Moguls path to the beach. (Another public entry, about a 25-minute walk west of Geffen's, was named for Zonker Harris after an earlier tussle over access.)

Interactive map: Guide to Malibu beaches

Aside from an easy-to-miss brown-and-white "coastal access" sign on a light pole planted in the sidewalk, there's nothing to indicate that this Geffen-adjacent walk is one of three public gateways to Malibu's most coveted coastal strip.