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Public Could Have Right to Access Martin's Beach, Court Rules

The public could be getting access to Martin's Beach again, after a ruling by the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco yesterday. Surfers, picnickers, and beach goers had accessed Martin's Beach in Half Moon Bay for decades, crossing private land to get to the secluded shoreline. That is, until 2010, when billionaire tech investor Vinod Khosla bought up the land and cut off public access.

Despite the California Constitution's grant of public access to public beaches, a trial court dismissed a suit seeking to reestablish public access. Now, in a unanimous ruling, an appellate panel has reinstated the suit, finding that a trial could show that the property's former owners had created a public right to access Martin's Beach.

The Deeneys' Dedication

Since the 1930s, the land adjacent to Martin's Beach had been owned by the Deeney family. According to Friends of Martin's Beach, the advocacy group that sued to reestablish public access to the beach, the Deeney family and their lessees had created a common law dedication of the land to public use.

Over decades, the Deeneys had encourage the public to use the beach, and to cross their land to do so. They even erected a billboard, installed public toilets, and opened a general store to serve beach goers. That, Friends of Martin's Beach argued, created a public easement, a general right to cross the land to get to the beach.

But, Khosla, or rather, the two LLC's created to purchase the land for Khosla, argued the Deeneys had also charged nominal entrance fees on occasion. That meant that, as a matter of law, there could not have been a dedication of the land to the general public, showing that the Deeneys did not intend to allow free access across their land.

Not so, the appellate court ruled. Even if the Deeneys were "motivated in whole or in part by an expectation of commercial benefit," Judge Therese Stewart wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel, a trial court could still find, under the right facts, a clear "intent to dedicate the road and beach to public use."

No Constitutional Victory

Friends of Martin's Beach did not, however, convince the court that the California Constitution creates a public right to access all beaches. Article X of the state constitution reads, in part:

No individual, partnership, or corporation, claiming or possessing the frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water in this State shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose, nor to destroy or obstruct the free navigation of such water; and the Legislature shall enact such laws as will give the most liberal construction to this provision, so that access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable for the people thereof.

But, as the court noted, it's an open question whether that provision creates a public right to cross private land to access public beaches. (Supreme Court Justice Brennan once suggested that any such finding would be considered a taking requiring compensation.)

Article X's application to Martin's Beach is further complicated by the history of the land. Before being owned by the Deeneys, Khosla's land was owned by José Antonio Alviso and his brother, José María Alviso before him. And his interest in the land had come from the Mexican government, which then controlled California and did not treat shorelines as public land. Alviso's title to the land was later confirmed by the federal government's post-Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo patent process.

Under the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in Summa Corp. ex rel. Lands Comm'n v. California, titles confirmed under the federal patent process could not be subject to public trust claims later, when those claims weren't raised at the time of the patent. This process, created by the 1851 Act implementing the treaty, was created at the height of the Gold Rush, after all. Its goal was to create a clear division between public and private land.

So too here. Summa bars Friends of Martin's Beach's constitutional claims, the court ruled. And even if Summa didn't, those claims wouldn't be successful -- as Article X was adopted after Alviso's property rights had been established.

Had the court ruled otherwise, it could have set a significant precedent, potentially affecting dozens of other public access disputes. But, while Friends of Martin's Beach did not win a ground-breaking victory, they were still victorious. Their case can now return to trial to determine if, indeed, the Deeneys created a public right to access the beach.

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