Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC

Beachfront property owners have a constitutional right to exclude trespassers

Cases > Property Rights > Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC
Case Status: Lost: The decision from the United States Supreme Court was unfavorable. Case closed.

When a beachfront property owner discontinued his practice of allowing beachgoers to park on his land for a fee, disgruntled beachgoers sued the owner to establish their “right” to trespass on the owner’s land. They based their claim on the “public trust” doctrine, which gives the state title to waters and the land beneath. It does not extend to dry beach land. The state trial court rejected the beachgoer’s proposed expansion of the doctrine and the beachgoers appealed. PLF represents the California Farm Bureau and California Cattlemen’s Association as amicus to support the owner’s constitutional right to exclude trespassers from the dry sand areas of his property.

For decades the owners of the coastal property in San Mateo County south of Half Moon Bay allowed the public to park on their land for a $2 fee in order to access Martins Beach. The owners installed a convenience store and public restrooms and advertised access to the beach. But eventually they could no longer afford the cost of maintaining the operation and the owners sold the property to a management company. The company intended to continue the parking operation, but wanted to raise the parking fee to cover some much-needed improvements. San Mateo County told the company it must charge the same for access as the prior owners had in 1973. With no other alternative other than to run a money-losing operation, the company chose to shut it down.

The public has no right to park on private property, but an organization called the Friends of Martins Beach nonetheless sued the company, claiming that the “public trust” doctrine gives everyone a constitutional right to access the beachfront private property. Under this doctrine, the state holds title to navigable waters and the “wet” beach, up to the mean high tide line, for people to use for navigation, fishing, and recreation. But the state has no claim on the “dry” beach. Private owners therefore may prevent trespassing on their dry sand beach property. If the public has the right to cross the private property in this case, the fundamental right to exclude trespassers from private property would mean very little to beachfront property owners statewide. They would be unable to keep the public from using their land as a right-of-way to the water. As amicus, PLF urges the Court of Appeal to respect the right to exclude trespassers as one of the most important components of constitutionally-protected private property rights. The decision from the United States Supreme Court was unfavorable, in that the Court denied the Petition for Writ of Certiorari. PLF attorneys participated as amicus in the case.

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What’s at stake?

  • Property owners have a fundamental, constitutional right to exclude trespassers, including on dry beach areas of waterfront property.
  • The extent of the public trust doctrine affects every property owner with land adjacent to a body of water, particularly when the only way to reach the water is through the property.

Case Timeline

Amicus Brief in Support of Petitioners

March 28, 2018 Download

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