Beach Access, Legal, Updates, Martin's Beach
January 06 2020

California Agencies Sue to Definitively Open Martins Beach

by Angela Howe

On January 6, 2020, the California Coastal Commission ("CCC") and California State Lands Commission ("SLC"), as represented by California Attorney General Xavier Bacerra, sued Martins Beach I and II LLC in order to secure public beach access to Martins Beach permanently for the California public. While the Surfrider Foundation was successful in our lawsuit utilizing the California Coastal Act's beach access protections, the exact parameters and delineation of beach access have never been established with the CCC.  Property owner Vinod Khosla has had the opportunity to go to the Coastal Commission to obtain a Coastal Development Permit for terms of access, including on which hours and days the property should be open, but has failed to do so. The California agencies have filed this suit under the doctrine of implied dedication to obtain quiet title and declaratory relief for a nonexclusive right for the public to use Martin's Beach Road and the sandy beach at the southern portion of the coastal property.

This beautiful crescent-shaped beach in Half Moon Bay, CA, has offered respite and amazing coastal recreation to visitors for generations. Over 100 years of public access have been documented for this beach, but in 2008, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla purchased the property and attempted to block access through the 89-acre property with signage, gates and security guards. The Surfrider Foundation's San Mateo County Chapter activated an advocacy campaign on the issue once they confirmed that the property owner could not be voluntarily persuaded to continue open public access at this beach. This multi-faceted campaign has included public outreach, advocacy to local and state elected decision-makers, defense of surfers from criminal charges, and litigation that Surfrider filed in 2013. This litigation ended in a landmark victory involving the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of Vinod Khosla's request for a hearing in October 2018. Today, the beach and access road are open on most days, but there are no set hours or access terms established.

Specifically in the current complaint, the Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission sue for implied dedication, or the implied conveyance of the beach accessway to the public, based on the history of use of the land at question. The CCC has gone to great lengths to gather information on the history and extent of use for the Martin's Beach Road that leads to the popular beach. The complaint asks the court for an injunction against interference with public access to the use of Martin's Beach and a declaration to establish that the public has acquired access rights to the land based on historical use and California law. The complaint also asks for relief in the form of a temporary restraining order against signage, gates and employees blocking access.

This most recent lawsuit is one in a storied history of litigation, legislative action and agency process. Notably, Khosla sued the State, the California Coastal Commission, California State Lands Commission, and San Mateo County Planning and Building Department in September 2016, including individual commissioners and directors associated with those bodies, claiming denial of his property rights and due process. Additionally, the Friends of Martin's Beach case has been in litigation for eight years regarding the public rights to use the beach, road and parking lot. It most recently was struck down at the appellate court in November 2019, but there is a chance it will be taken up by the California Supreme Court. For a full timeline of litigation and other actions, see Timeline - Open Martin's Beach.

The California Coastal Commission collected hundreds of accounts of beachgoers at Martin's Beach over the years to use for evidence of the dedication of public access. If you or someone you know has a story to share about the history of use at Martin's Beach, you can fill out the official survey here. The Surfrider Foundation will continue to monitor this litigation and support the California agencies efforts to obtain strong public access rights at this treasured beach.