Capitol Alert

California Assembly approves bill to settle private beach dispute

Advancing an effort to ensure public access to a contested California beach, the Assembly on Wednesday narrowly passed and legislation compelling the state to step into a dispute over Martins Beach.

The stretch of shore near Half Moon Bay has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over balancing private property ownership with the public’s right to the coast. The pristine beach’s new owner, billionaire Vinod Khosla, has ignited a fierce backlash and touched off a court battle by cordoning off a road leading to the property.

Senate Bill 968 would have the State Lands Commission intervene and hammer out a solution that restores public access. It squeaked out of the Senate on a 22-11 vote in May and emerged from the Assembly with the bare minimum of 41 votes, with numerous Democrats abstaining. It returns for a final Senate vote that would send it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Proponents argued that the bill would simply return a status quo that had prevailed for decades. Language pushing the state to guarantee a public entry point using eminent domain has been softened so that the State Lands Commission must first negotiate, turning to eminent domain only if a deal does not emerge by 2016.

“As the lawsuits works themselves out, which could take years, the public is denied access to something that it has access to for generations,” said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, calling Martins Beach “a jewel of the California coast.”

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, said the underlying issue raised a fundamental question of private property rights.

“I believe that this bill here is premature,” Donnelly said. “I believe the courts are going to sort this out, and it’s going to be a very historic decision as to whether or not you truly have the right to private property in California.”