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California Beaches Remain Open to the Public



The Supreme Court last week denied a petition for certiorari filed by Vinod Khosla requesting the Court to overturn a ruling that he has to provide public access to the beach fronting his private property in San Mateo County, Martins Beach.  The denial in the case, Martins Beach 1, LLC v. Surfrider Foundation (Supreme Court Docket No. 17-1198), means that the lower court opinion stands. This opinion, issued by a California Court of Appeal, held that an injunction to ensure the status quo of providing public access to a private beach based on historic use while applying for a development permit is not a taking as contemplated by the US Constitution. 

In California, beaches are a public resource and the public has a right to access these beaches.   This is based on the public right to access frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water guaranteed by the California Constitution Art. X Section 4. One mean by which the Coastal Commission enforces public access is through the use of public prescriptive easements, which are also known as a prescriptive public right to access.   In cases in which a landowner attempts to prevent access to a privately owned beach, the Coastal Commission will investigate the historical use of the beach in question, and if there is a history of public use, the Attorney General has the authority to file suit to enforce the public prescriptive easement.  This is the situation with respect to Martins Beach. 

 In the Martin’s Beach case, the public had access to the beach, located in San Mateo County, for nearly a century before it was purchased by the Martins Beach 1 LLC and Martins Beach 2 LLC. Once the purchase was complete, the LLCs constructed a gate and a guardhouse, and stationed a security guard at the public entrance to the beach to close public access to the beach.  These structures are considered development under the California Coastal Act, and thus the LLCs were required to obtain a coastal development permit for any structures, including gates or guardhouses, built after the passage of the California Coastal Act. The California Court of Appeal ordered the LLCs to remove these structures, and the Supreme Court just denied the LLC’s last ditch attempt to circumvent the California Coastal Act requirements. What does this mean?  It means that the public still has the right to access beaches all along the California coast and private landowners have to provide this access. However, this is not an absolute right.  Exceptions can be made for a few reasons, such as a lack of historic use, if there is already adequate access to the beach, or if access would endanger coastal resources. 

This can, of course, be very contentious. There has been a pending dispute for more than 30 years regarding the Hollister Ranch beach in Santa Barbara County.  Access to this 8.5 mile coastal area has been in a virtual standoff between the State and the ranchers that own the lots that make up Hollister Ranch.  This area has received renewed interest as evidenced by a recent Los Angeles Times article. California’s coastline is a finite resource, and the tension between the rights of the public to access this treasure and the rights of the landowners to exclude the public from their property is still being settled by the courts nearly 40 years later.


Latest News

California Beach Remains open to the Public.  The US Supreme Court denied a petition for writ of certiorari filed to challenge a California Appellate decision ordering the Martins Beach area of San Mateo County to remain open to the public pending the filing of a development permit with the California Coastal Commission. For more information please see our latest article on this.