For more than 40 years, the California Coastal Act has ensured that the public has the right to freely walk the sands of any beach in the state. It doesn’t matter who owns the property fronting the beach—up to the mean high tide line, all beaches in California are, by law, public beaches. Excepting of course, military-controlled beaches.
But actually accessing the beach, however, is another matter entirely. When the only access points that lead to the sand are privatized and getting to the beach is impossible, legal skirmishes can erupt.
Right now, Californians, at least those concerned with beach access, are warily watching two such skirmishes. One has made news for the better part of five years, the Martin’s Beach case near Half Moon Bay, California. Vinod Khosla, wealthy co-founder of Sun Microsystems, bought beachside property fronting the beach years ago and immediately closed off an access gate leading to the beach that the public had used for decades. Surfers, windsurfers, kayakers, anglers, and beachcombers were incensed.
Khosla was immediately sued by the Surfrider Foundation, among other groups and has been told repeatedly by courts to open the gates to let the public access the beach. In California, when the public has traditionally had access across private land, that bit of land falls under a legal designation called a “prescriptive easement,” which by law, allows the public to continue to use the land.
Khosla’s legal team appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court this past winter. If the court takes it up this fall, it’s entirely possible they’ll decide to toss the California Coastal Act out on its ear, letting Khosla keep the public from crossing his land to reach the beach, and, potentially, opening the floodgates for more titans of industry to buy beachfront land, then bar the public from accessing it.
A second case has been on a low simmer for decades, but in recent months has heated quickly. Hollister Ranch, a pristine chunk of southern California coastline, just north of Santa Barbara, is a series of privately owned parcels of golden hills overlooking a series of world-class surf breaks. Surfers and well-to-do beach lovers have bought access to the ranch for decades and built a powerful homeowner’s group that controls access.
The ranch has worked around allowing the public to access its beaches by arguing that since the public has never had access, there’s no history of use to allow for a prescriptive easement—though for years dedicated surfers have piloted zodiacs and other small boats up from nearby launches to anchor offshore and surf the area’s waves, or made stealthy night hikes along the bluffs to sneak in, avoiding a surprisingly tenacious security detail.
A recent settlement between the state of California and the ranch’s homeowner’s association would have granted the public use of a small stretch of beach, regardless of tide line, in exchange for the state giving up any claim to any other public access points.
Upon learning of this settlement, thousands of people wrote letters to the California Coastal Commission demanding the settlement be torpedoed, claiming that the arrangement gave up the hope of meaningful public access to the ranch for very little in return.
If this settlement is overturned, there’s every reason to assume a protracted legal battle could emerge with the state seeking to open the ranch to the public once and for all.
And I’m torn.
Through no doings of my own, I have a family connection that owns property at the ranch. Once a year or so, I head down, am waved throug the gate, and enter a kind of surfing Shangri-la: a California coastline unspoiled by development. It’s impossible to imagine the place being better off by allowing more people to walk its beaches, carve trails into ocean-fronting bluffs, choke it’s one winding road with beach blanket loaded cars.
The beauty of the ranch threatens to turn me into a hypocrite. I’ve long argued that places like Martin’s Beach must be kept open—the public had been happily enjoying the place for years. For Khosla to slam down the gates and keep people from a beautiful stretch of coast is deeply offensive.
But the ranch is, well, uncrowded. It’s quiet. It’s a window into a different, more beautiful period of California history, long before Southern California was swallowed by stucco and strip malls. Nobody wants to see the place overrun.
Whatever happens, happens. If it opens, it’s probably for the best. If it remains closed to the public, I won’t shed too many tears.
Either way, California’s coastline, and the laws that protect it, are in for a interesting few months.