Lawyers and coastal advocates are still trying to figure out the ramifications of last month’s ruling on Martin’s Beach, and whether the case could reconfigure the rules for California beach access.
In October, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald determined that Martin’s Beach owner Vinod Khosla was within his rights to bar the public from accessing the shoreline. The story of Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist, trying to block the public from the beach drew national media attention to the small, secluded coastline south of Half Moon Bay.
But the judge’s decision raised particular concern for legal experts who worry where the case goes from here. Plaintiff attorney Gary Redenbacher indicated he would appeal the judge’s decision. That would bring the case to an appellate court, a venue that could set binding precedent for coastal rules throughout the state.
Months before the ruling, lawyers specializing in coastal access reached out to Redenbacher and cautioned him about the risks of getting a verdict detrimental to the public. The Martin’s Beach case is complex and could backfire against those seeking public access rights, said Curtis Fossum, former chief counsel for the State Lands Commission.
“The concern we have is this could confuse existing law for the court, so that you could get a bad decision,” Fossum said. “I don’t think there’s much harm here, unless you get it up to the appellate level.
“But if this case is appealed, we’d have to get involved,” he said.
Redenbacher based his case on the public trust doctrine and Article 10, Section 4, of the state constitution, which prevents property owners from excluding access to public bodies of water.
Buchwald ruled that the constitution’s provisions did not apply to Martin’s Beach because it was predated by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty ended the Mexican War, and guaranteed that the United States would uphold the property rights of Mexican citizens. The treaty granted 200 acres to Jose Antonio Alviso, including the Martin’s Beach parcels, and Buchwald ruled that the land grant took precedence over the public trust doctrine in the state constitution.
But if the California Constitution doesn’t apply to Martin’s Beach, then does that mean it also is irrelevant to other ceded Mexican lands? Redenbacher said he thought the possible breadth of this verdict made it vulnerable in an appeal case.
“Brought to its extreme conclusion, owners could claim they are a country unto themselves,” he wrote in an email to the Review. “It is simply not logical to say that any land that is part of a Mexican land grant is immune to state law.”
Redenbacher laid out several other portions of the ruling that he thought could be used in appeal.
As he read the verdict, Buchwald repeatedly pointed out the case was complex and he was under time constraints to compile his decision.
“While (the plaintiffs) claim they have the right to traverse the private property to access the beach, the private property is indisputably privately owned,” he summarized. “The question in the case really is what is the scope and effect of that ownership as against a claim to the right of public access.”
The Martin’s Beach case is certain to return to the courtroom in any event. The Surfrider Foundation is pressing its own suit based primarily on the California Coastal Act. The complaint seeks penalties against Khosla for barring the entrance gate leading down to the beach. That case is scheduled to go to court in May.