California Coastal Access and Property Law

A common issue that arises in California property law surrounds public coastal access. In September 2014, a California Superior Court judge ruled in favor of coastal access advocates by holding that a property cannot block the only public access route to Martins Beach (located less than an hour outside of San Francisco, California), without permission from the Coastal Commission, and demanding the property owner to open the gate blocking access to the beach.

The case, Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC, et al., was a bitter dispute over private property rights and public access to California’s coast filed in the San Mateo County Superior Court, Case No. CIV520336, before Judge Barbara Mallach.  The court held that blocking access to the road constituted “development” under the California Coastal Act, and the owner, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, must apply for a permit if he wants to block the public from accessing the road.

Khosla was sued by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation after his property manager blocked off Martins Beach Road, the only access to Martins Beach.  His property manager previously allowed the public to occasionally visit a stretch of sand off the property where locals went surfing and smelt-fishing for decades, but Khosla had the gate permanently closed after his property manager received a letter from the county in 2010 demanding that the gate stay open every day.

The issue is complicated because, under the public trust doctrine, beaches are widely considered public property and access to them is protected. However, there is no legal requirement that private property owners allow the public to cross their land to get to the beach.

The court sided with the Surfrider Foundation’s position that under the 1976 Coastal Act, which gave a statewide Coastal Commission jurisdiction over beachfront land and coastal access. Khosla needed to apply for a development permit in order to close the gate. The commission usually only grants development permits, typically to build a home or another structure, if the public gets an established right of way in return. However, the Commission cannot ask a property owner to dedicate an easement for public access.

The Judge’s ruling and recent injunctive relief order require public access to be restored to Martins beach. Khosla’s lawyers are considering appealing the verdict and pushing the issue of private property rights. Even if he does, a bill has been proposed that would require the State Lands Commission to consider purchasing the road if negotiations with Khosla for public access fail.

This case is important because the final determination will set a property law precedent that will impact all 840 miles of California’s coastline.

If you have any questions about easements or real estate transactions, contact an experienced attorney. Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law or real estate concerns.

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