SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL
REDWOOD CITY — Wealthy venture capitalist Vinod Khosla scored a key victory Thursday in a legal battle over his decision to block the public from walking or driving to Martins Beach, a secluded cove on property he purchased in 2008.
San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald ruled in Khosla’s favor in one of two lawsuits seeking to reopen a road that leads down to the beach from Highway 1 a few miles south of Half Moon Bay. The attorney for the plaintiff, a group of three surfers dubbed Friends of Martins Beach, said he will appeal.
The judge’s ruling skirts the fundamental conflict between the rights of private property owners and the rights of Californians to access the shoreline. Instead, Buchwald rooted his decision in the land’s history during the mid-19th century. Since there was no public easement attached to the property at the time the United States acquired California from Mexico, the judge reasoned, the question of whether the California Constitution now guarantees access to the beach is immaterial.
The original owner of the property was Jose Maria Alviso, who received a provisional land grant from the Mexican government in the late 1830s. He later transferred the property to his brother, Jose Antonio Alviso, whose rights to the property were upheld under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican-American War. The U.S. government challenged Alviso’s land patent, but the Supreme Court confirmed Alviso’s ownership in 1859.
All that complicated history led Buchwald to a conclusion that Buchwald shared with the attorneys Thursday: The nation’s high court exempted this property from the full reach of California law before the state came into existence.
“What the Supreme Court was saying was that a claim exactly like the one being made here now was extinguished,” Buchwald said. “And it doesn’t matter that the claim is being made all these years later.”
Jeffrey Essner, attorney for Martins Beach LLC, the listed owner of the property, said he was gratified by the decision.
“We’re glad that we’ve been able to get the issues of ownership and access resolved in the ownership’s favor,” Essner said.
Gary Redenbacher, representing Friends of Martins Beach, made several legal claims to restore public access to the beach, which is framed on either side by cliffs that prevent beachgoers from getting there from north or south.
View Martin’s Beach in a larger map
But the plaintiff’s central argument stemmed from Article X, Section IV of the California Constitution, which holds that no one possessing the frontage of navigable water “shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose.” The section requires the Legislature to “enact such laws as will give the most liberal construction to this provision” to ensure public access.
Redenbacher said the judge did not give enough weight to California’s evolving legal interests.
“The idea that the California constitutional right of access would have no bearing strikes me as odd,” he said.
It remains unclear how Buchwald’s ruling will affect the other lawsuit involving Martins Beach. That suit, brought by the Surfider Foundation, contends that locking the gate to the road off Highway 1 constituted development under California coastal law, requiring a California Coastal Commission permit, which Khosla neither sought nor received. That case is slated for trial in the spring.
Surfrider Foundation attorney Mark Massara said in an email he is not concerned the Coastal Commission’s authority over Martins Beach would be impacted by Buchwald’s reasoning that the land patent for the property pre-empts state law.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.