A favorite of locals and surfers on the San Mateo County coast, Martin’s Beach is singular, reminiscent of the time when California’s coastline was not controlled by state and county regulation. Devoid of a sign advertising its road along the highway, or a paved parking lot, Martin’s lures beachgoers with its rugged beauty, towering cliffs, and recognizable arced rock that rises out of the sea, a landmark that has characterized the beach for fishermen and tourists for centuries.
For the last decade, an access dispute surrounding Martin’s Beach has played out between the public and current owner Vinod Khosla, a technology and venture capitalist mogul who closed public access to his property adjacent to the beach. His actions caused public outcry, as the story of a local beach closure has received coverage from news sources coast to coast, and poses serious questions regarding property ownership and public land access.
In 2008, Khosla—operating under the LLCs Martin’s Beach I and Martin’s Beach II to maintain anonymity—purchased the Deeney Family’s property encompassing Martin’s Beach for $32.5 million. After the deal closed, the county informed the Martin’s Beach I and II that they would be required to maintain public access. Two years after the initial purchase date, Khosla closed and locked the gate leading down to Martin’s Beach.
The road at Martin's Beach, its gate locked.
When Edmundo Larenas, co-founder of the San Mateo County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was made aware of the closure, he and fellow board members sent a letter to Khosla highlighting the importance of Martin’s Beach to the public, and made an offer to assist Khosla in the opening and maintenance of the beach. The board received a response along the lines of “Thank you for your letter, please keep Mr. Khosla’s name out of it, and we will see you in court.”
A year later, in October 2012, a group of five surfers were detained and charged for trespassing at Martin’s Beach by officers from the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department. The group, dubbed the Martin’s Beach Five, challenged the indictment and were acquitted in county court on February 7th, 2013, a ruling that assured the public amnesty to enter the beach from county law enforcement.
Following the decision, the Surfrider Foundation sued Khosla's LLCs for allegedly failing to comply with the California Coastal Act. Specifically, they highlighted that Khosla had not applied for the coastal development permit needed to block coastal access.
After a drawn-out legal battle in California’s Court of Appeals—and a final refusal to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court—the Surfrider Foundation won and Khosla was forced to allow public access at Martin’s Beach.
Khosla’s next steps, Larenas believes, will be to “apply for a coastal development permit to keep access closed. When he does this the coastal commission is going to say ‘we aren’t going to let you because the public has established what's called a prescriptive right,’ meaning they have had access to the beach for many generations.” In the Coastal Act, generational access restricts any landowner from denying beach access on the California coast. However because Khosla did not apply for a coastal development permit initially, Larenas believes his chances of achieving one are slight.
Now, the Surfrider Foundation is focusing its efforts on motivating the State Lands Commission to purchase an easement from Khosla for the road going down to the beach. According to Larenas “There’s an account in the state government specifically for buying that road, both the state and the county are putting money into the account.”
However, Khosla has not made it an easy process, as he requested an absurd $30 million for the use of the road, when the state land commission's assessment found the easement to be worth anywhere from $250,000-$500,000. Larenas is adamant that Khosla’s tactics will not prevail. “He can run roughshod over a little chapter like us, and he tried and lost in the courts. Now he’s going up against the State Lands Commission, which is another story. He’s going up against the state.”
As part of Surfrider’s effort to prepare for the court cases, Kari Mueller, vice chairman of the San Mateo County chapter, was tasked with informing the public of the issues surrounding Martin’s Beach. Although sympathetic to the Surfrider side of the Martin’s Beach debate, Mueller’s experiences leading the cleanups gave her perspective on being a landowner on the coast. “Of course it’s not fair for someone to deny access to a beach because it is public property. On the flip side of it[...] people don’t treat beaches very well. People leave trash, go to the bathroom on the beach, and leave cigarette butts[...] If [Khosla] opens up Martin’s, people will leave trash down there, which isn’t cool. And so who’s responsible for that?”
Mueller proposed what in her view is the best solution for both sides: “The State and the landowner need to work together[...] to have state sponsored public restrooms, trash disposal and cleanup, so it doesn’t become the land owner’s financial burden.”
Larenas anticipates that despite Surfrider’s progress in the courts against Khosla, the battle is long from over. “A coastal access violation fine, handed out by the coastal commission, is $11,000 per fine, per day. We did the calculation based on his net worth, and he could keep the gate closed[…] for 400 years.”
However the board’s plan to influence the state lands commission to buy an easement at Martin’s is well underway. “We talked to the state lands commission this week, lobbying that they were on it and that it’s heading in that direction[...] Public access to Martin’s Beach will likely come from that, not from the Surfrider suit because [Khosla] will just keep in the courts. We’re going to keep fighting it in the courts of course but that’s going to be a long process. Like I said, ‘400 years of paying fines’, he’s got a lot of money.”
Larenas acknowledged the importance of the progress made to date, “It was a big deal. The language that we used to sue him, if that had gone down, would have severely weakened the coastal act and[...] access rights to lands all over the country. What started off as a little old Surfrider chapter fighting for access to one beach became a potential problem with public access to lands all over the U.S.”