REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) – A wealthy beachfront owner in San Mateo County must reopen the road that leads to a popular surfing destination, a California judge ruled.
Judge Barbara Mallach found that Martins Beach LLC violated the California Coastal Act when it blocked a road that beachgoers had used for decades to access Martins Beach.
Though not mentioned as a defendant in the lawsuit, the Surfrider Foundation identified billionaire mogul Vinod Khosla as the owner. The Wednesday ruling is tentative.
The Surfrider Foundation sued Martins Beach 1 LLC and Martins Beach 2 LLC over a year ago. As part of the ensuing bench trial, the San Mateo County Court visited the beach and found that some people were still using it, in spite of a blocked-off road and signs that told them to stay out.
Though the property owners claimed that their actions did not constitute development under the California Coastal Act, Judge Mallach disagreed and said they cannot bar access to the beach without a permit from the Coastal Commission.
She noted that the defendants admitted they have no “written support for their contention” that the commission told them that they would “never receive a permit of any kind due to their decision to terminate decades of public access to the water and coast at Martins Beach.”
Nobody knows how the commission would rule on the application since it was never submitted, Mallach said.
“The court trusts that the commission will adhere to its responsibility to fairly balance the competing interests set forth in the Coastal Act,” she added.
The Surfrider Foundation called the decision “a huge victory in its protracted legal battle” to restore access to Martins Beach.
“Today’s court decision upholding the Coastal Act is an important victory for Martins Beach and ultimately strengthens the public’s right to beach access in California,” Surfrider legal director Angela Howe said. “The Surfrider Foundation remains vigilant to protect beach access rights, not only in this case, but also in other cases where the beach is wrongfully cut off from the public.”
Surfrider’s attorney, Joe Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, also applauded what he called “a huge victory for all of the people of California.”
“It affirms that great wealth cannot be used to circumvent and ignore the law,” Cotchett said. “Everyone can again visit Martins Beach.”
Both sides noted their expectation that Khosla will appeal, but the parties have 15 days to object to the tentative ruling.
Finding that the defendants had acted in good faith, the court declined to assess penalties.
Dori Yob, an attorney for Khosla, told Courthouse News in an email: “We are disappointed with the court’s decision and will consider our options for appealing the ruling.”
An attorney With Hopkins & Carley in San Jose, Yob noted that the San Mateo County Superior Court had ruled for Khosla in the separate Friends of Martins Beach case, finding that there is “no right of public access or easement for the public to use or access the property for any purpose whatsoever.”
“That is a correct statement of the law,” Yob said. “We will continue to seek protection of the constitutional rights of private property owners that are guaranteed by the U.S. and California Constitutions and that have long been upheld by the United States and California Supreme Courts.”
The surfers claimed the owner of Martins Beach 1 had put up a gate in 2008 to block the only access to Martin’s Beach in Half Moon Bay, hired armed guards to intimidate would-be visitors and covered up a public sign stating that the beach was open for public access.
The California Coastal Act, enacted in 1976, tasked the California Coastal Commission with protecting coastal resources, including ensuring shoreline public access and recreation, and protecting marine habitat. The 1972 California Coastal Zone Conservation Initiative made the entire coast public property, including all beach property up to the mean high tide line.
The plaintiffs in the complaint had noted that the property touching Martin’s Beach was owned by the Deeney family for more than 100 years. They said the Deeneys had built 45 cabins and signed long-term leases to them. Media reports indicate the family also built parking lots, a store and restrooms and charged visitors $5 for beach access.
Martin’s Beach LLC sued San Mateo County and the California Coastal Commission for civil rights violations but the case was dismissed.
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