Martin's Beach. Photo: Open Martin's Beach.

Martin’s Beach. Photo: Open Martin’s Beach.

The Inertia

For surfers in San Mateo County battling to maintain public access to the popular Martin’s Beach, a ruling handed down by a Superior Court judge this past October has dealt a serious blow to their cause. Judge Gerald Buchwald ruled in favor of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, whose 200-acre coastal property has the only public access route to Martin’s Beach, signaling defeat in the lawsuit brought forth against Khosla by a group of beachgoers dubbed ‘Friends of Martin’s Beach.’

The legalities involved of coastal land ownership, private property rights, and public access to ‘navigable waters’ are confusing to say the least. But it’s the future implications of Judge Buchwald’s unique ruling that has surfers in California worried. Citing provisions outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, as well as a land grant claim made by Jose Antonio Alviso and recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1859, Judge Buchwald concluded that the stipulations of these early coastal rancho property land grants supersede all tenants of public rights to property, including beach access, laid out by the California Constitution in 1879.

This ruling poses potential issues for surfers in California whose local breaks are only accessible via roads or pathways that exist on or pass through private property. The fear is that owners of coastal properties throughout the state will be scrambling to see if their land qualifies under Judge Buchwald’s ruling, a concern that was confirmed by Khosla’s attorney, Jeff Essner: “There are potentially other properties that could avail themselves of this ruling, assuming that they’re rancho properties.”

The battle for Martin’s Beach has been going on since 2008, when Khosla purchased the property from the Deeney family for $37.5 million. Prior to Khosla, the Deeney family had charged surfers a small fee in order to access the beach. After buying the land, Khosla locked the gate and hired security guards to ensure that surfers didn’t pass through his property. Upset with being barred from their favorite spot, local surfers have been rallying against Khosla, something we’ve covered extensively in The Inertia’s documentary, Martin’s 5, and have been working with Surfrider Foundation to help promote.

Even though the court ruling against the Friends of Martin’s Beach is a step in the wrong direction for surfers fighting for public beach access, there is plenty that can still be done to keep our beaches free for all to enjoy. Surfrider Foundation has their own pending lawsuit against Khosla, but their focus remains on raising the awareness of beach access battles across the country. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can help Surfrider keep beaches accessible to all here.


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