Martin’s Beach: A Case Study in Public Access Versus Private Property
By now many of you have probably heard about the recent ruling that reinstated public access at Martin’s Beach, after being closed off for almost a year by Vinod Khosla, founder of SunMicrosystems, who had purchased the beachfront property in 2008. It was a case that garnered national media attention and even sparked the debate over new state legislation. In short, the beach had been open to the public for decades, as most California beaches are, before being purchased by Khosla, whose property manager removed the gate granting access and painted over road signs that labelled the beach. The move sparked a great deal of public backlash, which including the spawning of a non-profit group to fight to reopen the beach, and eventually led to the consideration of State Senate Bill 968, before ending in a lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation. And while the media was quick to paint the story as another chapter in the age old narrative of rich versus poor, this time in the context of underdog surfers versus a Silicon Valley Billionaire, the truth and legal ramifications of the dispute are much more subtle. Namely, that decades old state legislation governing the permitting process for coastal development is alive and well.
Now big name celebrities and millionaires closing off beaches in California is nothing new, just look at Malibu and other areas in Southern California. But what most people don’t know is the extent to which some of these beaches are really private property and why. The California Coastal Act was written and passed by voters to preserve and promote public access to the California coastline, among other things, but basically makes public all beach areas between the lines of the lowest and highest tides. However, there are some extraordinary exceptions, and access to these areas can be a problem. To see how this plays out with some private property owners look no further than David Geffen, who literally painted a fake garage door and hid the access gate to a beach near his house in a bunch of shrubs, as a means of discouraging people from parking there or using the beach. It’s a strategy that has actually been strangely successful, as few people use the beach and many still believe that the entire beach is private property.
This is particularly interesting given that the California Coastal Act, otherwise known as Proposition 20, was passed by voters in 1972, so it should be public knowledge. However, in the case of the Vinod Khosla, the matter of access comes into play. Included in the Coastal Act was the creation of the California Coastal Commission, a public body created to regulate and oversea the stewardship of all California beaches. Now this body is beloved by some and loathed by others, mainly because of their influence over development in the coastal zones. What makes the Martin’s beach case so interesting, however, was that in a previous case Khosla’s lawyers argued that since his property was held privately before California became a state in 1850, that his property is actually governed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the federal treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, which supersedes state law. Thus, he argued, public access to his beach didn’t need to be preserved.
Now this may have been the end of the case had it not been for another part of the Coastal Act, the part that many dislike, the power to regulate development in the coastal areas. In his argument against providing public access, Khosla’s lawyers actually did something else, they admitted to a change of use for the property. Whereas the property had previously been open to the public, because Khosla closed it off, this limiting of access is technically considered a fundamental change in the use of the property, and can thus be considered development. And in order to “develop” in any coastal area you need a permit, something Vinod hadn’t bothered to get. So in a stunning twist of fate, the Surfrider Foundation was able to sue and win the case against Vinod because of the admission of limiting access, and because someone simply forgot to file the proper permit. Such are the nuances of public policy… Civics in Action, Yay!