The Current

On Film: Surfrider Foundation's Battle Over Martin's Beach

The ocean health and access advocacy group has picked a battle with a wealthy California landowner and the outcome could set an important precedent around recreational beach access.

    Photo: Jim Patterson

On October 21, 2012, five surfers jumped a closed gate and walked to Martin's Beach, a storied stretch of Pacific in the Northern California's San Mateo County. Their aim was to perform an act of surfing disobedience that could get them arrested. It did.

This week the surfer's website The Inertia and Surfrider Foundation released a short film, "Martin's 5: Battle for the Beach," that explains why these surfers – Jonathan Bremer, Kyle Foley, Tyler Schmidt, Austin Murison and David Pringle – risked misdemeanor convictions. They, along with surf access and ocean advocacy organization Surfrider Foundation, claim that access to Martin's Beach is granted to individuals through California's Coastal Commission, which formed 40 years ago and passed the California Coastal Act in 1976. The Act was designed both to conserve marine resources along the Pacific, from Oregon to Mexico, and to maximize opportunities for the public to access and recreate on California beaches.

"What the California constitution and the Coastal Commission envisioned, is that one of the limitations on private property rights is that you can't use your property to exclude the public from navigable waters, and that includes beaches up to the median high tide line," Dan Barton, the defense attorney that represented Martin's 5, says in the film.

At an arraignment on February 7, 2013, San Mateo asked that the case be dismissed, pointing to insufficient evidence that the surfers had committed a crime. That sent a positive message for public access, but it did not address the larger issues around the closed access road. So in March, Surfrider Foundation filed suit against the landowner, saying it violated the Coastal Act by erecting the road closure gate without permits. Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation's legal director, says she expects the trial will begin late this coming spring.

It seems likely that the case will drum up a fair amount of attention, and not just in surfing circles. A number of media reports and what Surfrider calls "enterprising local sleuths" have pointed to prominent cleantech venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla as the property owner. This has yet to be proven – the property is registered under an LLC called Martin's Beach. But according to the film, Michael Wallace, Surfrider's San Mateo chapter representative, sent a letter to Khosla, seeking a meeting to work out the access issue. Kholsa's legal counsel responded, saying they invited a court case, because they believe "the law would side with them. 

The defense says it was not legally bound to obtain a permit before closing the road, which was used for public access prior to the property's sale (for $37.5 million) in 2008. The outcome of this case could set an important precedent for future battles over beach access in California. 

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