The Never-ending Battle Over Martins Beach Explained

4 min
Pelican Rock marks the northern end of Martins Beach. (Amy Standen/KQED)

The California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission continue their battle with Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla over public access to Martins Beach on the San Mateo County coast. For 100 years, Bay Area families have been going to this beach, seven miles south of Half Moon Bay, to fish, swim and picnic. The only way onto this scenic beach is a single road through private property.  

After Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, bought the land surrounding Martins Beach in 2008, he restricted access to that road by displaying "No Trespassing” signs, charging parking fees, and locking its access gate. This newest lawsuit continues a 10-year conflict that could affect land-access rights throughout California. 

Paul Rogers, managing editor of KQED Science, has been covering the story for the Mercury News, where he writes about the environment. He and KQED's Brian Watt spoke about the latest developments and long history surrounding Martins Beach. 

What’s at the center of this newest lawsuit?

Under a legal doctrine in California called implied dedication, public use of a road for five years or more without restrictions establishes a permanent legal right to the road. Khosla argues that people never had that right because, for years before he bought the land surrounding the beach, its former owners charged a parking fee. 

Last year in a separate lawsuit, a state appeals court agreed with Khosla. But the Coastal Commission is now arguing that the court didn't consider all the evidence. For this new lawsuit, to demonstrate that people routinely used the access road without paying, the Coastal Commission has collected a century of photographs, journal entries, letters and the like from 230 families.

Sponsored

This is just one beach. Why is this case such a big deal?

Environmental groups and beachgoers say that what happens at Martins Beach could set a precedent that would allow very wealthy people in other parts of California — Malibu for example — to block access to public lands. Khosla has argued that he’s sticking up for his private property rights. Just as people have no right to walk through a landowner’s backyard without permission, he contends that they have no right to use the road through his property. This case represents a big clash between two rights: private property and free access to California’s coastline. 

Didn't Khosla already lose a case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Two years ago, the nation’s highest court refused to hear an appeal of a case that Khosla lost in three lower courts in California. The landowner had argued that he did not need a permit to close the gate to the access road running through his property to the beach. But California's coastal law is pretty clear. Property owners need permits from the Coastal Commission not only when they build houses near the beach, but also if they change public access to the beach. So Khosla lost that case. Since then, he has opened the gate most days and he allows people who pay a $10 parking fee to drive to the beach.

How will the result of this latest lawsuit affect the fight over this beach?

It's a really big juncture in this long-running battle because a win for Khosla would establish that there is no legal public right to use that road. Such a decision would make it easier for him to get a permit to close the gate from the Coastal Commission. 

If the state wins, there's almost no way that the Coastal Commission is going to grant that Khosla permit. Commissioners would argue that the public right to that road existed for decades. Additionally, the commission would probably prevent Khosla from charging the $10 parking fee. Potentially, it could fine him $20 million or more. 

Even if California loses this case, the State Lands Commission could try to seize the road or access to it by eminent domain.