SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL
Martins’ Beach trespassing charges against surfers dropped
By Jason Hoppin
Santa Cruz Sentinelsantacruzsentinel.com
Posted: 02/07/2013 04:55:17 PM PST
The wall around the Bay Area’s forbidden beach was cracked Thursday by a quintet of surfing buddies.
The Martin’s Beach Five — Jonathan Bremer, David Pringle, Austin Murison, Tyler Schmid and Kyle Foley — saw their trespassing cases dismissed by a San Mateo County judge Thursday, four months after they tested state law by crossing private property to get to a reef break along the San Mateo County coast.
“Today is a pretty wonderful day,” Bremer said.
The case became a cause among coastal activists, and prosecutors said state coastal access laws put the charges in a gray area. In seeing the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office drop the charges, activists also saw a sign that there is merit to the surfers’ claims.
“When we looked into it more and learned about the issues related to the possible easement and coastal access, we decided that it was not appropriate to move forward,” Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato said. “One of the things that influenced us was a lack of clarity as to whether there is a historical easement across that land.”
The case of the surfing dissidents is the latest chapter in a running battle over access to Martin’s Beach, an issue that could have statewide implications. The crescent-shaped strip of sand was a popular destinations for generations, given access across private property by a benevolent landowner and for a small fee.
But when access to the beach was closed after the property was sold to a new owner in 2008 — believed to be billionaire Venod Kholsa, a Sun Microsystems co-founder and venture capitalist — it touched off an ongoing debate about beach access and an investigation by the state Coastal Commission.
It also has led to an ongoing debate about the state’s constitutional guarantee of coastal access and California’s landmark 1976 Coastal Act. Protests followed, and last year a group of surfing buddies — several are engineers at Tesla Motors — did some research and decided they had a right to the waves.
They were quickly given arrest citations. The Surfrider Foundation took up their cause, and is using the Martin’s Beach situation as the centerpiece of a documentary now under production.
“This marks a major victory for Surfrider Foundation in our mission to secure universal beach and wave access for all people,” legal director Angela Howe said Thursday. “The county’s action to dismiss the case today demonstrates that these brave surfers were acting under their rights as Californians to lawfully access the beach.”
Mike Wallace, a Half Moon Bay High School surf coach and local activist, followed the case closely. He praised the surfers’ decision to challenge the law.
“They had the guts to stand up and say, ‘Look, it’s against the California Constitution, it’s against the Coastal Act, and we have a right to be here,'” Wallace said. “I would say it’s a significant, enormous milestone, because five guys went in, they were charged with trespassing, and it was dismissed. So you can take what you want from that.”
Bremer’s attorney, Dan Burton, concurred. While the dismissal doesn’t carve out beach access rights, he said the signal is clear.
“It’s more than good news for my clients. The fact that the DA dismissed for insufficiency of evidence sends a signal that the DA isn’t going to prosecute people for walking from Highway 1 to Martin’s Beach,” Burton said.
Bremer was more circumspect, arguing that people can now use the beach but suggesting the situation still was tenuous. He advised anyone who goes to be respectful of private property.
“No, the war is not over,” he said. “We definitely won a battle. Until it’s decided in civil court, people can go to the beach. If they get harassed by the sheriff, they’ve got a really good argument.”
All beaches are open to the public, and state law protects historic or customary easements across private property to get the beach. But it does not apply in all cases.
Joan Gallo, a lawyer for the property owners, said her clients did not pursue criminal charges and never spoke with the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office. Gallo said the dismissal sets no precedent, and that an ongoing civil suit would decide who has access.
“That will be a place where an ultimate determination will be made,” Gallo said.
That suit was brought by Scotts Valley attorney Gary Redenbacher, who sued under the state constitution’s guarantee of coastal access. Redenbacher said Thursday’s dismissal supports his suit, but that his case potentially could reverberate up and down the coast.
“If we win our case, it will be beneficial for every person in California,”