Property rights under attack in California "Martins Beach" case

May 21, 2014 | By PAUL BEARD

There’s a big legal battle brewing along the San Mateo County coast that PLF is closely monitoring. Two radical, anti-property-rights groups are trying to force owners to open up their private land to the public, so that the public has easier access to a popular beach area known as Martins Beach.

Here’s the backstory:

For many years, the owners’ predecessor-in-interest–-the Deeney family–-allowed members of the public to drive across their land and park their cars at Martins Beach for a small fee of $2.  Members of the family managed the fee-for-parking program, keeping costs very low. But there was never any doubt that the program was voluntary and that the public had no right to come onto the family’s property without its consent. So, the family regularly locked the gate to the road leading to the beach for private events, during the winter, and whenever a family member was unavailable to collect the per diem fee for parking.

Eventually, the family put the property up for sale, because they were losing money and expensive improvements had to be made to continue the program. Two management companies  (Martins Beach 1 and 2, LLC) purchased the land in 2008, with the intent of carrying on the fee-for-parking program. But given the improvements that had to be made, and the staff that had to be hired to run the operation, the owners were able to do it only for an increased fee. San Mateo County balked, suggesting the public had the right to the same access on the same terms, and that any change in those terms would require a Coastal Development Permit. Reluctantly, the owners had to stop the program to protect their rights, after which both the California Coastal Commission and the County threatened legal action and fines.

Then, the owners were hit by a lawsuit by an unincorporated association–-Friends of Martins Beach–-that seeks to establish that the public has a right to cross the owner’s land to reach Martins Beach. The court rejected the association’s arguments, concluding that the Owners own the property free and clear of any right to public access.

Shortly thereafter, the Sufrider Foundation–-a well-known, anti-propety rights outfit–-sued the Owners. In their suit, Surfrider argued that, because the Owners had asserted their now-well-established right to protect their land against trespassers, they were in violation of the Coastal Act.  Surfrider’s theory? The Owners’ decision to stop allowing members of the public onto their property constituted a change in the intensity of use of the land, which is a “development” requiring a Coastal Development Permit.  The Surfrider’s challenge is pending in the San Mateo Superior Court, which is expected to render a decision soon.

You can read more about the owners’ recent win here, and the ongoing Surfrider trial here.

There likely will be appeals in both lawsuits, at which time PLF attorneys will review the cases to determine whether participation as a friend of the court is appropriate.