Last summer, California’s film industry gave the world the hit movie Barbie, a box-office smash with ties to the Golden State in several regards.

First, the movie was set in a decidedly sunny and pink Southern California, with location shoots across parts of the greater Los Angeles area.

A second California connection: Barbie’s parent company—both the real and the fictitious Mattel—is headquartered in Los Angeles. The real Mattel is based in the town of El Segundo, about a marathon’s-run from the Burbank headquarters of the studio (Warner Bros. Pictures) that produced the film.

Finally, there’s the connection between the doll and California’s fabled beach vibe, with one version of Barbie invoking the high-end oceanside “colony” of Malibu (last year, coinciding with the film’s release, a real-life Malibu DreamHouse was available for rent).

But whereas Barbie made 2023 synonymous with Barbie and California beaches, the Golden State of 2024—the beachy portion, that is—is anything but peachy. Again, for three reasons:

Shore Assault. While America’s struggles with border enforcement focus on the drama along the Rio Grande and Texas, California likewise is home to a surge in border trespassing in recent months.

According to this Wall Street Journal report, the number of attempts to enter the Golden State via boat—migrants landing on beaches, mostly in the San Diego area—more than doubled from 2020 to 2024. The resulting spectacle, often captured on videotape: migrants sprinting across beaches and into coastal communities, in hopes of evading US Border Patrol agents.

California’s shore assault has prompted action in the nation’s capital, the US House of Representatives in late April passing a bill that would expand federal border enforcement along the coast. If likewise approved by the US Senate and then signed into law by President Biden, the measure would double the range of US Customs and Border Protection enforcement to 24 nautical miles.

But stateside, one has the sense that California—with its images of migrants dashing into the state—has managed to turn back the clock 30 years to a previous election year, when a controversial ad showed actual footage of a migrant surge at a border stop in the town of San Ysidro (critics deemed the ad xenophobic). “They keep coming,” the ad advises. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”

That ad proved helpful in the re-election fortunes of then governor Pete Wilson. (Wilson received 55% of the statewide vote, while Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to undocumented residents, received nearly 59%.) Time will tell if the Southern California shore landings become a defining issue in this fall’s congressional races in the San Diego area.     

Legislature vs. Commission. My California on Your Mind colleague Lee Ohanian has written multiples times in this space about California’s failed approach to addressing its housing shortfall (here’s a video in which Lee discusses why rules and overregulation, not to mention bureaucratic overexamination, have worsened the Golden State’s housing crisis).

How this impacts California’s beach communities:  a test of wills has built between the state legislature and the California Coastal Commission over development the Golden State’s coastal zone, which runs the length of California’s 840-mile coastline.

Last year, lawmakers snubbed defied the Coastal Commission by electing not to include an exception for the California coast in a new law meant to spur more housing—even in the state’s beach communities.

This year, the legislature’s power flex goes even further (assuming these ideas actually become law) by:

  1. exempting from Californian’s Coast Act apartment projects that incorporate “density bonus” laws, which allow developers to build higher and with fewer restrictions if they designate units for lower-income units; and
  2. also including the same exception for smaller-sized casitas, or “granny units.”

Again, keep an eye on how policy clashes with political necessity. On the one hand, Governor Gavin Newsom first ran for his current job on the promise of developing 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 (“Our solutions must be as bold as the problem is big,” then candidate Newsom declared back in October 2017). But according to data from the state’s Department of Finance, California has seen a net gain of nearly 590,000 new units—barely one-sixth of the way to the governor’s state goal—as of January 2024. For Newsom, widely seen as making a presidential bid after his second and final gubernatorial term ends in January 2027, improving on his housing record would seem to be an important legacy item (along with homelessness, climate change and keeping the peace with the state’s teachers’ unions as California grapples with a budget deficit).

But for those candidates looking to succeed Newsom, any policy clashes involving the Coastal Commission is a potential minefield, as siding against the commission risks a backlash among environmental groups. Those candidates would include Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, an announced gubernatorial candidate who also serves as the chair of the Coastal Commission. With a large field of Democrats likely to compute in 2026’s gubernatorial primary, keep an eye on whose side the candidates take—the legislature’s or the commission’s—or if someone dares to strike a prorestrictive, prodevelopment balance.

Lifestyles of the Rich—and Litigious. What is it about owning California beach property that brings out the worst in some of the state’s more privileged circles?

Consider the daughter of the late senator Dianne Feinstein, who ended up in a legal tussle over the senator’s home in Stinson Beach, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (The daughter, who held her mother’s power of attorney, wanted to sell the house, ostensibly to help with the senator’s medical expenses;  attorneys representing a business partner of Feinstein’s late husband accused the daughter of wanting to unload the house in order to increase her own inheritance.)

Or consider the entertainment mogul David Geffen, who tried (and failed) over two decades ago to block public access to the ocean near his compound on Malibu’s Carbon Beach. (Geffen argued unsuccessfully in court that the Coastal Commission had no legal grounds for requiring California property owners to allow public coastal access near their beachfront homes.)

Picking up where Geffen left off: Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems cofounder and prominent Democratic Party donor (earlier this month, he hosted President Biden for a fundraiser at his Northern California home) who’s been in a decades-long feud with the state over . . . you guessed it, beach access.

In Khosla’s case, the legal odyssey began after he purchased an 89-acre beachfront property in San Mateo County, south of surfing mecca Half Moon Bay, that included a road long used by beachgoers. Khosla gated off the road and closed it to the public, only to be met with lawsuits demanding the road be reopened.

The matter then worked its way through the courts, with the US Supreme Court eventually declining Khosla’s appeal to keep the roads closed. But then a San Francisco district appeals court ruled in favor of Khosla, followed by the California State Lands Commission and the Coastal Commission suing Khosla. Last week, a California state judge denied Khosla’s request to throw out the lawsuit, meaning the matter will drift into next year (a bench trial beginning next April).

What do these three stories tell us what about Californians and their coastline? Unlike the Barbie movie and its running time of less than two hours, the sagas play out for years, even decades.

But when it comes to policing the shores, building new housing, and compelling at least one litigious billionaire to take down a “no trespassing” sign?

It’s certainly no day at the beach.

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