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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Now It’s Personal: Surfers Seek Access to Surf

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) - A surfers group sued a landowner, believed to be a billionaire computer mogul, for blocking access to a public beach in Half Moon Bay.

The Surfrider Foundation sued Martins Beach 1 LLC and Martins Beach 2 LLC, in San Mateo County Court. The surfers claim the defendants illegally blocked a road that beachgoers have used for decades.

While the names of the people behind the Martin's Beach LLCs are not known, the principal owner is thought to be Vinod Khosla, a 57-year-old billionaire venture capitalist who helped found Sun Microsystems, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The surfers claim the owner of Martins Beach 1 put up a gate 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 nonprofit claims the landowner or landowners violated the California Coastal Act, which requires anyone who wants to develop land in the coastal zone to get a permit.

In significant coastal areas the zone "extends inland to the first major ridgeline paralleling the sea of [sic] five miles from the mean high tide line of the sea, whichever is less," according to the complaint.

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 surfer dudes and wahinis say in the complaint that the property that goes to Martin's Beach was owned by the Deeney family for more than 100 years, during which the family 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.

The plaintiffs claim: "Due to fencing and natural geographic constraints, Martin's Beach Road is the traditional and only beach access route. It is defendants' illegal and unilateral blocking of this road which blocks access to the beach and has been done without a California Coastal Act permit and has dramatically changed the use and intensity of use of Martin's Beach."

Shortly after buying the property in 2008, the surfers say, the defendants erected a fence and gate across Martin's Beach Road with a sign stating, "BEACH CLOSED KEEP OUT." They covered up a sign saying the beach was open to the public and hired armed guards to intimidate people from going to the beach, all without the required permit, according to the complaint.

"The obstructions ban access to the beach and have prevented thousands [of] individuals from using the beach. Defendants' unlawful actions have caused dramatic adverse changes in the intensity and use of the land and the water under the Coastal Act," the complaint states.

"Defendants did not apply for or obtain a permit from the Coastal Commission prior to erecting the fence or halting access to the beach, and have undertake[n] no efforts to seek such approval since engaging in the unlawful conduct alleged herein. Put simply, defendants' barriers to access to Martin's Beach are willful and unlawful."

The defendants allegedly disregarded two letters from San Mateo County stating that any change in public beach access required a permit, specifically referring to the gate and sign closing the beach in the second letter.

Martin's Beach LLC sued San Mateo County and the California Coastal Commission for civil rights violations but the case was dismissed.

The owner apparently was not deterred by the litigation.

Joan Gallo, attorney for Martin's Beach 1 LLC, told the Chronicle, "We welcome the lawsuit. All we've wanted from the beginning was an opportunity to have a court decide the rights and obligations of the parties."

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the defendants violated the California Coastal Act and an injunction requiring them to allow access to the beach in the absence of a permit saying they do not have to.

They also request civil fines of $15,000 per day, attorneys' fees and costs and any other relief deemed proper by the court.

They are represented by Niall P. McCarthy with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, of San Francisco.

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