Billionaire's Beach just got a lot less exclusive

Malibu, California (CNN)It wasn't a particularly good beach day, but that was beside the point. This event was all about going where the rich folks didn't want us to go.

And so, on a gray morning in early July, a small group of conservationists gathered on Billionaire's Beach, once one of California's hardest to reach. They had a beach party of sorts, simply because they could.
It felt good, in the way that off-limits things often do.
They nibbled on cookies shaped like flip-flops and gossiped about the creative measures some of the 70-plus homeowners have taken to keep the riff-raff off the sand.
    Giant scissors sliced through blue ribbon while flowery words were spoken about how this was a big, important day for California's beaches. With that, the Carbon Beach West coastal access way -- a 10-foot-wide concrete walkway slicing between two fenced Malibu mansions -- was dedicated and opened.
    Billionaire's Beach was turned over to John and Jane Q. Public.
    Californians are passionate about their beaches, and Malibu has some of the most famous in the world. Many actors, rock stars and power players in the entertainment industry maintain Malibu beach houses or sprawling estates in the hills overlooking the Pacific.
    Blue signs now point the way to a 10-foot-wide concrete sluice running between the busy Pacific Coast Highway and the beach.
    In California, the area between the water line and the mean high tide line is public land by law. More simply put, wet sand means public beach. In theory, anyone could walk the length of California's coast -- some 1,100 miles -- and never set foot on private property.
    But getting to the wet sand can be problematic. In some places, rocks and cliffs block the way. In others, wealthy homeowners have proved resourceful in mounting impediments.
    Consider: Fake garage doors. Fake "No Parking" signs. Fake red-painted curbs. Rent-a-cops with real guns.
    Carbon Beach is the official name for the crescent of sand that stretches for about a mile and a half from the Malibu Pier toward Santa Monica. But everyone knows it as Billionaire's Beach. It has been one of the most hotly disputed slices of sand in California.
    Up by the pier, the original public path has been open since 1981. It became known as the Zonker Harris beach access after "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau poked fun at entertainment mogul David Geffen's attempts a decade ago to block public access near his compound at the other end of Billionaire's Beach.
    Geffen eventually lost his court fight and in 2007 turned over keys to an access gate. Some refer to it as the "Hooray for Hollywood Moguls beach access," but most people call it the Geffen gate. Geffen, meanwhile, is said to be quietly soliciting offers for his Malibu compound. The asking price? $100 million.
    The new Carbon Beach West access point lies halfway between Zonker Harris and David Geffen, running alongside a white, glassy mansion with pool and tennis court, designed by starchitect Richard Meier and built in the mid-1980s by Norm and Lisette Ackerberg.
    Make no mistake: This is beach heaven. There are no parking meters, no souvenir stands, no other honky-tonk distractions. The view is spectacular -- mountains on one side, ocean on the other. Simple beach houses and glassy mega-mansions sit cheek by jowl, which made it extremely difficult for the public to reach a beach that long served as the private backyard for the richest of the rich. People like Geffen and Rob Reiner and Dr. Dre and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Larry Ellison.
    The four-dozen nonbillionaires who turned out for the beach access festivities pretty much had the sand to themselves. There were gray ponytails, hippie tie-dyes and Hawaiian shirts aplenty, and some of these folks had been part of the battle over this beach for more than 30 years. The last decade-plus was spent in and out of court.
    The latest case, which involved the Ackerbergs, came on the heels of Geffen's. It weighed the right of the wealthy to sequester themselves with some expectation of privacy in multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansions against the right of the public to use beaches that, by California law, are theirs.