Martin’s Beach, a privately owned, rugged, photogenic strip of sand south of Half Moon Bay on California’s Pacific coast, has become a flashpoint for a changing state. When billionaire Vinod Khosla—new owner of the beach and abutting property—closed Martin’s Beach to the public in 2009, environmentalists, surfers, and local government joined forces to restore public access. Shrinking coastline due to sea-level rise, a growing and diversifying statewide population, and widening wealth disparities cast the fight for public access to Martin’s Beach in an almost existential light: Who really enjoys the right to go to the beach, and for how much longer? For generations, California’s world-famous beaches have been endemic to the culture of the state and the identity of its residents. The movement to protect the rights of all Californians to enjoy the beach culminated in the 1972 passage of Proposition 20, which mandated public access to the entire coast and sought to protect the beaches from encroaching development. Decades later, the fight to protect access has been renewed in the courtroom, as a handful of wealthy individuals up and down the coast have sought to limit public beach access and erode a fundamental part of California life.
Recent decisions in two cases—the latest in an ongoing tangle of litigation—leave the right of Californians to access beaches in jeopardy. In Friends of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1, LLC (Friends I and Friends II), two separate courts found that there was no historical right of public access to Martin’s Beach. The California Court of Appeal ruled that the public trust doctrine does not apply to the property at issue, and, on remand, the San Mateo County Superior Court found that there had been no implied dedication of a public easement over the private property. In Surfrider Foundation v. Martin’s Beach 1, LLC, however, the California Court of Appeal ruled that the public must be allowed to access Martin’s Beach, though only on a temporary basis. Taken together, the rulings set a dangerous precedent that not only leaves future access to Martin’s Beach unclear, but also could exacerbate growing inequities in access to California beaches and undermine the mission of the California Coastal Act.