Half Moon Bay: Surfers, beachgoers celebrate ‘take back’ of Martins Beach

By Erin Ivie

Posted: 09/25/2014 03:22:01 PM PDT2 Comments

HALF MOON BAY — Though the access road to Martins Beach remained closed to the public Thursday morning, surfers ducked beneath the “No Trespassing” sign for the first time in years without worry.

Just a day after a court ruling that gave them a victory over a billionaire tech executive, they went down to the beach with boards under their arms.

“We got our beach back!” two surfers yelled, pumping their fists in the air as passers-by honked their horns. Others joined in the chant.

Closing a door on one of the most famous showdowns in the 38-year-history of the California Coastal Act, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach ordered Silicon Valley mogul Vinod Khosla on Wednesday to reopen the road leading to Martins Beach. Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a renowned investor in clean-energy technology, was determined to have violated the Coastal Act by permanently locking the gate to his land off Highway 1 near Half Moon Bay.

The decision was met with resounding joy from surfers and area beachgoers, whose visit to the picturesque spot Thursday morning came with feelings of gratitude and awe for the California coastline.

“I’m basking in the glow of our win here,” said Rob “Bird Legs” Caughlan, former president of the Surfrider Foundation, who carried a lucky shark tooth through the duration of the trial because it reminded him of the Martins Beach cliff known as “Shark Tooth Rock.”

“As us old surfers would say — I’m stoked,” Caughlan beamed.

Khosla’s legal team did not return requests for comment Thursday.

The ruling came just in time for the season’s first significant rain showers to descend upon the coast, prompting high tides and 8- to 15-feet swells for the brave-yet-joyous surf crowd. The first two surfers to hit the water during the celebration were Pacifica’s Tony Rose and Oakland’s Jesse Quay.

“Surfing here two days ago, we wondered if this was going to be the last time,” said Rose, 41. “It definitely feels better today.”

Nikki and Steve Toth, California natives now living in Arkansas, made a stop at Martins Beach as part of a teaching lesson for their kids on a cross-country RV trip. For the three home-schooled children, ages 9, 6 and 2, the day at the beach would entail an advanced lesson in sharing.

Visiting from Arkansas, An Na Toth, left, 9, and brother Henry Toth, 6, play at Martins Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Visiting from Arkansas, An Na Toth, left, 9, and brother Henry Toth, 6, play at Martins Beach in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (John Green/Bay Area News Group)

“We thought this was a great opportunity to teach the kids about the beach belonging to everyone,” said Nikki Toth, watching 9-year-old daughter, An Na turn cartwheels in the sand.

While Khosla will not be fined nearly $20 million for violating the Coastal Act because Mallach determined his property manager acted in good faith when failing to apply for a permit, the judge instructed the venture capitalist to apply for a coastal development permit before seeking to close the road again.

The tech magnate will be hit with daily penalties for as long as he refuses to open the gate, said Mark Massara, one of the attorneys on the Surfrider case. Massara was among the handful of surfers who circumvented the gate on foot Thursday morning.

“In all likelihood, (Khosla) is going to appeal,” Massara said. “We expect him to mount and prepare a rigorous defense, and we’re ready to keep fighting. We’re prepared to see this through.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto a bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that would ask the State Lands Commission to negotiate access with Khosla and possibly use eminent domain to acquire it. The California Coastal Commission is investigating whether the public’s past use of the property has created a right of access.

And while a number of beaches exist in the area that may even have more desirable conditions, Massara said the right to access Martins is a win for all involved. Besides being what he calls “the best sandy beach in San Mateo County,” the very question “Why not just go to another one?” is a moot point in Massara’s mind.

“Every beach is special in its own way, depending on tides, depending on conditions,” the attorney said as he zipped up his wetsuit. “But sometimes … sometimes Martins Beach is just the perfect beach. This is all just incredibly gratifying.”

Staff writer Aaron Kinney contributed to this report. Follow Erin Ivie at