Two state agencies have sued a Silicon Valley venture capitalist’s beach management companies in San Mateo County Superior Court, seeking to establish a court-ordered right to public access to Martins Beach.
The State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission claim that because the beach has been used as a public beach since at least the early 1900s, the public has gained a right of access under a doctrine known as implied dedication.
Beachgoers visit the crescent-shaped stretch of sand south of Half Moon Bay for picnicking, fishing, surfing, swimming and walking. It is surrounded by cliffs and the only access road is Martins Beach Road.
Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., bought 88 acres including the beach and the road in 2008 and sought to close the area to the public beginning in 2009. He claims it is private property.
In California, there is a right of public access to coastal beaches below the ordinary high tide mark. The agencies’ lawsuit concerns access to the road and the sand area above the high tide mark.
The suit asks for a court declaration that a right of public access has been created through implied dedication. It also seeks an injunction barring Khosla’s companies from using gates or signs to restrict access except as permitted by the Coastal Commission.
The case is the latest of several lawsuits filed during the past eight years. For now, public access to the beach continues because in one of those lawsuits, the Surfrider Foundation won a ruling that Khosla’s companies must obtain a permit from the Coastal Commission before changing the historic public access to the beach.
The companies have not applied for a permit, according to a commission spokeswoman.
In another case filed by Friends of Martins Beach, however, a trial judge and an appeals court ruled there was no dedication to public use because previous owners charged a parking fee. Friends of Martins Beach filed an appeal with the California Supreme Court on Jan. 3.
Without specifically mentioning that case, the new lawsuit contends the parking fees “did not amount to a restriction on public use” because the fees were either non-existent or inconsistent between at least the 1920s and at least the mid-1960s or 1970s, longer than the five-year period needed to create implied dedication.
The suit also argues the fee applied only to parking and not to other uses such as walking on the access road.
Dori Yob Kilmer, a lawyer for Khosla, said, “The claims asserted in today’s lawsuit have been extensively litigated and repeatedly rejected by the courts in a prior lawsuit.”
She said, “Since the property was purchased by our client, the state, and small activist groups have endeavored to seize our client’s private property without compensation.
“The U.S. Constitution precludes the government from simply taking private property and giving it to the public,” Kilmer said.
Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who chairs the State Lands Commission, said in a statement, “California’s coastline belongs to everyone.”
“This lawsuit is a critical part of California’s ongoing efforts to ensure public access and to protect the public’s rights to access its golden shores,” she said.