August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

Steve Hoye has one of the world’s loveliest beaches all to himself, and it’s really driving him nuts. “Look at that,” he says, pointing down a prime stretch of Pacific coastline in Malibu, Calif. “There are three sea-gulls and me out here. That’s not right.”

Then again, to the folks who own pricey beachfront in Malibu—people like Dustin Hoffman, Danny DeVito, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen—three seagulls probably sounds about right. Hoye, on the other hand, won’t be as easy to shoo away. A former actor turned crusader, he is pushing to open Malibu’s beaches—technically public but rendered private by a lack of access paths—to anyone with sandals and sunblock. The clash over the coast is headed for court, after Geffen, the Dreamworks SKG honcho, sued Access for All, Hoye’s not-for-profit group, to block the opening of a path that would run along the edge of Geffen’s property. “This is a classic conflict between the haves and have-nots,” says the actor Edward Albert, a member of the California Coastal Commission, which is also fighting for beach access and was named in Geffen’s suit. “I understand the celebrity point of view, but if I have to drive 10 miles to find a way onto the beach, something’s out of kilter.”

By law, there are no private beaches in California. But according to the Coastal Commission, only seven of Malibu’s 27 miles of coastline are actually reachable through pathways or easements; the rest are blocked by tightly packed beachfront homes. Many homeowners go so far as to post Private Property signs on their beachfront. Like many Malibu Owners, David Geffen agreed to provide public easements to the beach in exchange for permits to expand and renovate his Cape Cod-style home. That promise, made in 1983, has not been kept. “I didn’t realize Geffen had been reneging on the deal all these years,” says cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who has recently devoted several strips to the controversy. “Credit Hoye with keeping Geffen’s feet to the fire.”

Geffen’s lawyers argue that he was coerced into providing pathways, and that in 1987 the Supreme Court found that such deals amounted to extortion. “We all support beach access,” says his spokesman Andy Spahn. “But the accessway Steve Hoye has chosen adjacent to Mr. Geffen’s property has no amenities, no parking, no bathroom, no crosswalk. Hoye has been more interested in publicity than in meaningful access.” (Hoffman, DeVito and Spielberg declined to comment.)

Indeed, Hoye, 52, held a press conference in front of Geffen’s home before ever meeting with him. Since then he has done most of his negotiating through the media. Hoye and his group “try to pump a lot out of this because they’ve got a billionaire caught in the middle, and it’s hard to feel sorry for him,” says Malibu City attorney Christi Hogin, who is familiar with the easement issue. As for his questionable tactics and apparent grandstanding, Hoye admits, “I like getting the word out there. A political activist has to embrace publicity. But I think working people in Los Angeles have the right to go to the beach.”

Hoye grew up among the privileged in Providence, R.I. The son of Stephen Hoye, a heart surgeon, and Anne, a dietitian, he became a fund-raiser for environmental groups in the mid-’90s. He and his first wife lived in Malibu from 1992 to 1994, and Hoye recalls being ushered off beaches by private security guards. His research into the issue led him to form Access for All in 2000, and the group has now taken charge of sprucing up 13 potential casements in Malibu. “Steve has accomplished more than any commission,” says Mark Massara of the Sierra Club’s Coastal Program. “He is an inspiration to coastal activists.”

A fund-raising consultant by trade, Hoye draws no salary for his efforts. Living just north of Malibu in Topanga with wife Tricia, 56, a public school teacher, and her daughter Katherine, 18, he is heartened that a county judge called Geffen’s complaints against his group “sham allegations.” Another hearing is set for early September, but before then Hoye plans to have an easement-opening party along the path bordering Geffen’s property. Naturally all the major networks are invited. “Let ’em try to stop us,” he says. “Just because you’re rich and powerful does not mean you always get your way.”

Alex Tresniowski

Michael Joseph Gross in Malibu

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