California has about 1,100 miles of coastline. This land belongs to you and me.
That’s not just a paraphrased folk song. It’s a core value. In the 1970s, Californians passed groundbreaking laws to ensure that everyone would have a right to the beach, not just the rich and connected.
But as once-rustic beach burgs have serially gentrified into playgrounds for the uber-wealthy, coastal access has become an increasingly high-stakes battle. All sides would benefit if we shored up the public’s right to its day at the beach.
Today’s case in point? The de facto privatization of a once-bustling beach in San Mateo County that has been cordoned off for years by a Silicon Valley tycoon.
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For 100 years, Martin’s Beach was a favorite of fishermen, families and surfers.
Like all of the coast, it is public property beyond the mean high tide line. The family who owned the surrounding land made sure beachgoers had access.
In 2008, though, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, famed for his green tech investments, bought 53 acres there for $37.5 million via two limited liability corporations. Soon, locked gates blocked the only road to the sand, paint covered the entry sign, and surfers were being arrested for trespassing.
Coastal activists and locals felt betrayed. The path to Martin’s Beach is the only coastal access for miles in either direction.
Perhaps Khosla felt betrayed, too. Thirty-seven and a half million bucks is a lot to spend just so strangers can cut through your front yard. But sharing is supposed to be part of the price of a front-row seat to a public gem.
Khosla’s lawyers claim that the road is his to close; if the public wants to visit their mean high tide line, they can do it by water. The Surfrider Foundation says that any change in intensity of use requires a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
Litigation, which made news last week as Khosla took the stand only to dodge questions, has dragged on for years through multiple lawsuits. It may seem outrageous, given the spirit of the law, but this pattern isn’t new.
And part of it stems from imbalances in the system. The Coastal Commission lacks the basic regulatory power to impose fines and tickets for access violations. Property owners see this and take the rules less seriously.
From illegally blocked trails to fake “no parking” signs, the sand grabs grow worse every summer. Only the most egregious end up in court, where the litigation can be endless. Entertainment mogul David Geffen blocked access near his Malibu beach house for more than two decades before giving in.
Improved enforcement would benefit all sides, though powerful interests repeatedly line up against it. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, carried a bill last year that would have allowed the commission to impose fines. It failed in the last days of the session. It should be revived. Perhaps a narrower version, aimed at just access penalties, would be more successful.
A pending Senate bill would require the State Lands Commission to try to buy a right-of-way from Khosla and use eminent domain if that fails. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. A court decision to close that path would seriously undermine access rights.
The bigger issue is whether our core values will withstand the undertow of the coast’s new economic order. This beach is our beach, our birthright.