With A Recent Decision By The San Mateo Superior Court, The Surfrider Foundation Blocks Billionaire’s Attempt To “Drop In” On The Public’s Use Of Martins Beach
Public access to California’s 840 miles of coastline has been a point of contention between groups attempting to preserve historic access and private landowners for decades. One ongoing controversy is access to the northern California surf spot of Martins Beach. Access to Martins Beach, an ideal surfing spot, secluded and protected from wind by jutting cliffs on either end, is only available by way of Martins Beach Road, an offshoot of the Pacific Coast Highway. The road traverses 53 acres of land owned by billionaire Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Khosla does not own a home on the land and has indicated no intention to build one. At the edge of Martins Beach Road lies a low-slung gate. For a time, the public was occasionally allowed access by Khosla’s property manager, but, in 2010, Khosla allowed the gate to be closed permanently, despite the receipt of a letter from the county demanding the gate remain open every day.
Khosla’s property manager, Steve Baugher, testified it was his decision to close the gate and stated he had even hired security guards to “deter trespassers.” In October 2013, five surfers marched past the guards to proclaim their right to the beach. These surfers, known as the “Martin’s 5,” were arrested, but the District Attorney declined to prosecute, leading other surfers to hop the fence for access to the beach.
Public access to California beaches is protected by the public trust doctrine, the principle that certain natural and cultural resources are preserved for public use, and that the government owns and must protect and maintain these resources for the public’s use.
The Surfrider Foundation claimed that under the 1976 Coastal Act, which gave a statewide Coastal Commission jurisdiction over beachfront land, Khosla would need to apply for a development permit in order to close the gate to Martins Beach Road. In practice, the commission will generally only grant such a permit, typically in order to build a structure, if the public is given an easement to access the beach. Judge Barbara Mallach of the San Mateo Superior Court agreed, ruling on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation. Though Surfrider was seeking fines against Khosla as well, the Court did not go so far, stating that the closing of the gate was done in good faith by those who believed they had a right to do so.
In an earlier case, a group called Friends of Martins Beach attempted to sue Khosla based on a clause in the California Constitution that declares that no entity “shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose.” (Cal. Const., Art. 10, Sec. 4.) The judge in that case found for Khosla, due to Martins Beach having been part of a land grant that settled the Mexican American war in 1848, prior to the adoption of the constitution.
Aside from the ongoing litigation, other avenues are being pursued to bring resolution to this matter. California Senator Jerry Hill has proposed a bill, Senate Bill 968, that would require the State Lands Commissioner to consider purchasing Martins Beach Road. The bill initially centered on eminent domain, mandating the state to take the land if negotiations with Khosla failed. The bill has been revised now, however, to remove references to eminent domain and would mandate only the commission to negotiate with Khosla. In addition, the Coastal Commission has been requesting testimony from people about how they have used the area in the past. This could be used to prove a historic right of access that the Attorney General could sue to restore.
While the end of this dispute appears to be far from over, the Surfrider Foundation is lauding this decision as an important step in the fight for the public’s beach access rights.
8/15/17 UPDATE: The First District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Khosla violated state law when he blocked the public from accessing Martins Beach and ordered the access road be opened. The decision also requires Khosla to pay nearly half a million dollars in attorney’s fees. (Read the full decision here and a timeline of the events leading up to it here.)
In the meantime, Senator Hill continues to press forward a bill to accept funding through donations to purchase 6.4 acres of Khosla’s property through eminent domain. San Mateo County has pledged up to $1M for the acquisition. However, Khosla and the State Lands Commission have failed to agree on the price. The official estimates for the portion of land values it at $360,000 while Khosla demands $30M. (Khosla purchased the entire 53 acres of land in 2008 for $37.5M.)
By: Jessica Coffield
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