In California, the beaches belong to everyone, a right enshrined in the state constitution. The refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case brought by a California billionaire who tried to block access to Martins Beach in San Mateo County means that right will remain unchallenged — at least for now.
The constitution says that the public should have access to all coastal land below the mean high-tide line — essentially any sand that gets wet regularly. But it isn’t always easy balancing that right with private property interests.
Since the 1972 approval of Proposition 20, spearheaded by Sonoma County activists upset with the Sea Ranch development, which could have put 10 miles of coastline out of public reach, and an exceedingly unwise proposal to build a nuclear power plant on Bodega Bay, that balancing job has belonged to the California Coastal Commission.
That’s the public body that billionaire Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has been feuding with for years as he tried to gate a road that once provided public access to Martins Beach.
Khosla bought an 89-acre property south of Half Moon Bay for $32.5 million in 2008. He said he intended to maintain public access to the beach as the previous owner had, but Coastal Commission demands about maintaining hours and setting fee levels he could charge visitors convinced him to close the access road permanently.
The commission argued that he needed a coastal development permit to change the level of public access and warned him that he could be fined millions of dollars for refusing to apply for a permit.
The battle raged in court after court — with almost every one siding with the commission. So Khosla did what any billionaire would and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates of the California Coastal Act feared the conservative court would erode access rights if it accepted the case, overturning a principle that has guided coastal development for decades. Fortunately, it did not.
Khosla still can seek a permit to restrict, but not deny, access to Martins Beach.
Proposition 20 passed after the state Legislature failed to protect the California coast. The public decided it did not want the fate of the coast decided in back-room deals with wealthy property owners or well-connected developers. They wanted everyone — poor or rich — to have the ability to enjoy California’s beaches. They didn’t want subdivisions consuming all the beachfront property.
Voter approval of Proposition 20 set California on a far better path than it might have otherwise taken. The ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court taking this case could have been severe and unpredictable.
The relief when the court this week declined to even hear the case was palpable. “The most conservative and divided Supreme Court in my lifetime confirmed that even a billionaire, who refuses to acknowledge that the law applies to him, and retains the most expensive attorneys he can find, cannot create a private beach,” said Joseph Cotchett, the lead attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which sued Khosla. “Beaches are public in California, and the immensely wealthy must comply with the Coastal Act just like everyone else.”
Private property rights and public access to beaches do require a balanced approach — but there is no reason to believe that the Coastal Commission has failed to adequately and fairly balance those competing interests. California’s beaches, including Martins Beach, remain accessible to all.