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With an increase in the number of private resorts and estates lining beaches worldwide, a question arises about land ownership and its extension onto the adjacent beach and water. The rights to use this traditionally public space are now being called into question by the purchase of million dollar properties encroaching on these beaches. Like many states fighting this recent phenomenon, California law provides that under certain conditions, long term public access across private property may result in the establishment of a permanent public easement. Through this public easement, beaches “under certain conditions” cannot be considered fully private, though many, including Martins Beach, still present themselves as private property. Meaning that it is equally contradictory to say private beach as it is to say private park or private plaza. This conflict is framed by many court cases that have favored both sides. With no consistent decisions, this important legal case is an ongoing battle between the surfers with Surfrider Foundation and Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla. The final ruling, in this particular case, will likely create a legal precedent that could shape the future of California beaches, and has the ability to be applied to public spaces as a whole.
Since the beginnings of this country, people have been putting time and resources into protecting private property rights. This continued emphasis on private property over community good has not ceased and has led to the disappearance of some traditionally public areas, among those areas are beaches along the coasts. In more recent years and development in legislation, there is an extreme tension stemming from the relationship between public access through private lands. Fortunately for the public, this legislation, in most coastal areas, takes the precedent and replaces any previous limitations to access. These laws are called public easements and can not only be place along coastal areas, but also where recreational use is significant enough. These are the laws that have helped to define and protect public beaches from resorts and landowners in search of beachfront property. In some situations there can be laws or judicial decisions that refute the public easement, thus has been the case in the lawsuits and the conflict regarding Martins Beach. The final decision, no matter the result, of the “Battle for Martins Beach” will have radiating effects on coastal areas, recreational areas, and public spaces throughout the United States.
Public easements in general provide the public the right to use a certain space. Traditionally public easements are used for streets, pathways, and airspace, but recently have controversially been used to protect beaches for public use. In most areas beaches from the mean high tide to the ocean are considered public, called “wet-sand laws.” Today along the California coast, and other coasts as well, public easements for beaches are being granted on the areas not protected by the universal wet-sand laws: the accesses to the beach, as well as places inland from the beach for recreation. These new public easements, nicknamed “dry-sand laws,” are beginning to take shape along the California coast brought about by the introduction of the California Coastal Act in 1976. The decision whether or not to grant these easements has the ability to shape beaches, and public space, along the entire California coast and set the standard for the rest of the west coast and east coast as well. Martins Beach, California is a surfing destination that lies west of Palo Alto and just south of Half Moon Bay. Many of the surf community in the area learned to surf at the beach and are therefore very attached to the beautiful beach landscape. The decision in 2008 to not grant an easement led to the privatization of the famous surf destination, Martins Beach, and therefore block out the public use. Today many groups in the area continue to look more into these public easement laws and how they can pertain and be used to reopen the beach.
There are two ways that beaches are being appropriated to the public: one way involved the purchase of the land as a designated park and the other is a public easement. The government purchase of beachfront land in order to make it public can be extremely costly due to the increased land value along coastline, costs for monitoring, litter cleanup, and safety requirements. Despite the costs, this is the only guaranteed security that the land will be fully public via governmental ownership. On the other hand, public easements do not require purchasing ownership and therefore are much cheaper. The purchaser of the easement “only acquires the right to use” rather than the title to the land (Mckeon 567). In this case homes and resorts can be built on the upland and both guests and residents can enjoy the beach, ideally fostering compatibility between public and private use. Because these easements can be acquired at no cost, or at least much less than purchasing the land, it “seems a more promising method of providing public access” (McKeon 567).
In California the precedent for easements has been set with the passage of the California Coastal act of 1976 (Proposition 20) leading to the creation of the California Coastal Commission and huge impacts on the accessibility of beaches throughout the state (California Coastal Commission). They have created a public prescriptive rights program, similar to public easements. Prescriptive rights refer to public rights on private land acquired through use. Historically the public has used numerous coastal areas; for example, trails to the beach, informal parking, beaches, and other areas that provide recreational opportunities. The prescriptive rights through use is “an easement over property that comes into being without the explicit consent of the owner” (California Coastal Commission). The Commission exists to implement and protect these prescriptive rights. It is required to protect those areas of use substantial enough to warrant prescriptive rights. Section 30211 of the California Coastal Act states that “development must not interfere with the public’s right to access the sea…” As shown by the Coastal Act, it is obvious that California is very dedicated to conserving beaches and coastal features for public use.
Martins Beach is located south of San Francisco and West of San Jose, in San Mateo County it’s known origins dates back to the early 1800s. In 1838 a property including the beach was given to Jose Maria Alviso, an early settler of modern-day Silicon Valley. His ownership of Martins Beach only lasted 10 years until the spanish was forced to secede California to the United States which lead to the first conflict over this land. Maria Alviso’s brother, Jose Antonio Alviso, filed a claim for the land containing Martins Beach which was taken all the way to the supreme court, but was eventually confirmed and the decision lacks any mention of a public easement. In the early 1900s this land is sold to the Deeney family who from 1930 to 1991 leased it to the Watts family. The Watts family began the tradition of Martins Beach as a surfing area by opening it to the public for simply a parking fee. Once the Deeney reassumed control of the land they continued to let people pay to park and surf on the beach. (Kinney) Throughout this time as a public beach there have been multiple generations of surfers to take advantage of the beach’s access. The attraction was drawn from the landscape of the beach as well as the surfing potential. It is very unique, hidden from the highway and brandishing shark-fin shaped rock formations. It built a reputation as a good beginner spot and a great place to take the family, surfers or not. Access to the beach remained public in 2008 when the new owner, Vinod Khosla, purchased the property. After yielding over a thousand vehicles between July and September of 2008, the public access did not last and the gate to the beach was closed permanently in 2010 leading to a fury of lawsuits which still remain unsettled.
As mentioned, Martins Beach is considered the home of many surfers because it is an excellent place to learn surfing and to teach family. Due to this attachment, emotions flared when Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla bought and blocked access to the beach which lead to two lawsuits against Khosla, (Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, 2 LLC) and a possibility of more in the future. The true “ownership” or right to the beach is unclear. Both parties sport valid arguments and are backed by legislative precedents. The battle over the beach has become a tug of war match through lawsuits and acts of defiance, with each side taking the advantage at differing occasions. With lawsuits unsettled, the public aspect of the beach remains uncertain.
The numerous lawsuits and threats of lawsuits have headlined many news sources as the story continues to develop. These have lead to a complicated timeline of events that continue to unfold each day. It began in 2010 when Khosla closed the gates therefore blocking the road leading to Martins Beach. This barred visitors from the beach for the following 3 years which they took to organize and bring a case against Khosla. In October of 2013, the group that formed, Friends of Martins Beach, brought a lawsuit against Khosla, or Martins Beach 1,2 LLC. They sought a recreational use public easement over Martins Beach Road and the dry sand along the beach, and also to bar the Martins Beach LLCs from interfering with the public’s use of these easements (Friends of Martins Beach v. Martins Beach LLC 2013). The judge of this case decided in favor of Khosla due to the original claim on the land in the mid 1800s, because this agreement did not talk about easement or any sort of public lands. The state was also not mentioned in the title to having any sort of ownership on the land and therefore the land is “not subject to congressional laws regarding public access” (Standen).
After losing the first case, due to the land’s previous ownership by Spain and its reacquisition by Jose Antonio Alviso, the Friends of Martins Beach reorganized with the Surfrider foundation in an attempt to bring Khosla back to court. Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC; Martins Beach 2, LLC was a citizen enforcement lawsuit under the California Coastal Act closing the gate and preventing access that was previously granted to the public. The plaintiff, Surfrider Foundation, seeked to reconcile three causes of action. The first was for declaratory relief or essentially the acknowledgement that a law was broken. The judge agreed with the Foundation because under the California Coastal Act, any development that changes the public’s access to or use of beach, water, and/or coast requires a permit which Khosla did neither possess, nor attempt to get. The second cause of action was for injunctive relief or a legal solution to the problem. In this case, obviously, the injunctive relief was to have the gate permanently opened. Although the judge denied permanence, she agreed that the gate should be opened and unlocked the same times and extent it was when Khosla purchased the property. Lastly the Surfrider Foundation attempted to have Khosla pay fines for his behavior, but this third cause of action was denied. On the other hand Khosla, or Martins Beach LLC sought to incriminate the Surfrider Foundation for unauthorized entry onto the property, but there was not significant proof that the people that did enter were at all involved with, directed by, or ratified by the foundation, so the judge denied that cause of action.
Simply looking at the news articles, one can hardly be sympathetic of Khosla’s and his position, but after looking deeper his stance represents two long-time American ideals: historic legal precedent as well as the strong value of land ownership and private property rights. The historic ownership of this plot of land is extremely open ended and with no mention of the government nor public easement can be implied as full and complete ownership. The deed given to Alviso was also created much before the California Coastal Act was put into legislature and the codes of the Commission took effect, in turn bolstering Khosla’s argument. If the status of this particular beachfront property is based on Alviso’s early documentation from hundreds of years ago, as it was in the original case, than the status of most beachfront property could be called into question.This would result in little, if any, public-access beaches anywhere along the coast. Not only did that original deed imply all-inclusive private property rights, the judge of the Friends of Martins Beach v. Martins Beach LLC also decided the land was completely private therefore providing judicial precedent. The historical information as well as the judicial decision provides a compelling argument. Despite being overturned in Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC; Martins Beach 2, LLC due to previous use, the information prompts the question: if there had been no previous public access to the beach would there even be a conflict today or would Kholsa currently be enjoying his private beach? While irrelevant to the situation today, the question casts past public use as a powerful force in the eyes of the California Courts and the California Coastal Commission. If this public use of an area can convert a private drive and lot into a public road and parking lot because of substantial recreational use, like suggested in the California Coastal Act, what else can be converted into public lands? How far does legislation like this go, is “significant” bird-watching and/or hiking enough to give rise to public use rights in a privately owned field or woods? If not, such uses should be distinguished from public usage of a private beach or even the road and/or parking lot access to the beach (Maloney et. al. 936). While Khosla may be villainized throughout the news, it is important to see the basis of his claim to the land.
On the other hand, it is obvious how the Surfrider Foundation can have the legislative upper hand after review the codes laid out in the California Coastal Act. That state what Khosla is doing is illegal and the situation would be a simple one if the original court case had made the decision of the second and the defendant was not someone with as many connections and resources as Khosla has. The surfers that make up the foundation are ones that have been surfing at Martins Beach their whole life, learned to surf there, or wish to teach their friends or family to surf there. The fact that people who learned to surf there may not be able to teach their children at Martins Beach is all a part of “the long sad saga of Martins Beach” (Chinn). The surfers certainly seem to be the obvious underdog in a situation against a multimillionaire and it is easy to sympathize with them when nearly every news article posted assumes this fact. But as one reads deeper, the conflict over Martins Beach may not be the “David-and-Goliath battle” Amy Standen, a reporter at one of California NPR member stations, suggests. The Surfrider Foundation’s stance is backed by one of the most powerful controllers of land use in the state of California, the Coastal Commission. This considerably evens the playing field, and possibly even tilts the scales in the Surfriders favor. Preventing families from enjoying the beauty of a previously public beach is absolutely bad press and nearly all would be pleased to see the land be opened up to public, but the news articles’ extreme favoritism toward the “underdog” Surfrider Foundation needs to be examined more carefully.
At the time there seems to be no end to the various arguments and lawsuits about the privatization of Martins Beach, but it is certain, no matter the result, the essence of public space will be changed throughout the region and the United States. The outcome may favor the landowner as the trends have shown a privatization of public areas leading to a possible “end of public space” (Mitchell 121). Not only will the public lose access to a beautiful beach full of tradition and memory, but also if Khosla does in fact “win” all the lawsuits and challenges ahead what will prevent others from citing him as an example. Will there be other coastal landowners that will seek to have the same restrictions applied to their land? Most likely. This outcome also calls into question the intentions of Khosla if the beach does become privatized. Also, if Khosla wins his strategies could be implemented to take over other traditional public areas like preserved open fields for recreation, or even plazas in an urban environment. There are certainly many worries associated with the blocking of public access, but there are also many concerns with forcing the landowner to open his land to the public. As mentioned previously, where does the intrusion of public use on the private lands stop. Does this extend to recreational uses aside from beaches? If this continued onto peoples property who have woods or fields that can be used recreationally it could be an excellent public space but there would also be extreme controversy and it would step on the property rights. Are there differences betweens oceans and rivers or lakes? If the surfers win the lawsuit, could these principles possibly be used to create new greenways along lakes or other public areas of the sort? No matter the result there will certainly be an radiating result throughout the country. Public spaces along the beach and possibly recreational areas would be severely affected or even have access changed.
Martins Beach has become one of the most important legal battlegrounds of the decade in regards to public space. The final result of the lawsuits can set the standard for public beach all along the coasts of California. If public easement can be secured on this beach then the public will retain access and it will become the guide for other beach organizations to remain public. If the judge favors the landowner, the public aspect of the beach is lost and the American ideal of land ownership will be the benchmark for making beaches private. The significance of this case study cannot be overstated it has the ability to produce an overarching result that could shape the future of California beaches and public space as a whole.
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