REDWOOD CITY -- The question of the public's right to access a picturesque beach on the San Mateo County coast may have been settled roughly 150 years ago at the dawn of California's statehood, a judge said Tuesday.
At a hearing in San Mateo County Superior Court, Judge Gerald Buchwald indicated that, based on the history of the property between 1840 and 1865, he will likely rule in favor of the owner of Martins Beach in one of two lawsuits challenging the owner's decision to close a road leading down to the bluff-lined strand, which in recent decades was open to the public in exchange for a small fee.
Buchwald's decision, expected in three weeks, could deal a major blow to a campaign by surfers, environmentalists and activists to restore access to the beach. While the ruling may not ultimately go the plaintiff's way, the lawsuit forced attorneys for the secretive Martins Beach LLC to finally confirm what had been widely presumed for two years: the true owner of the beach is billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.
Attorneys for Martins Beach LLC argue that, because the land including Martins Beach was in private hands before the state of California came into existence in 1840, the state never owned the property. Therefore, they reason, any California law that might require public access to the beach does not apply.
On Tuesday, Buchwald noted the defendant's position is bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1859 that upheld the rights of the original owners, brothers Jose Maria Alviso and Jose Antonio Alviso, to keep the property after Mexico ceded California to the United States following the Mexican-American War.
"What's in dispute has already been determined years ago by the Supreme Court," said Buchwald, adding he will issue his final judgment in the case Oct. 21.
The case, brought by a group that calls itself Friends of Martins Beach, argues in part that the California Constitution guarantees public access to the state's beaches. A second case, brought by the Surfrider Foundation and Burlingame law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, takes a different tack, claiming Khosla violated the California Coastal Act by locking the gate to the property off Highway 1. That act required a permit from the California Coastal Commission, the plaintiffs argue, which was neither sought nor received.
Buchwald oversees that case as well, and a ruling against Friends of Martins Beach could affect the outcome for the Surfrider Foundation.
Jeffrey Essner, attorney for Martins Beach LLC, said he was not ready to declare victory after Tuesday's hearing. Indeed, Friends of Martins Beach attorney Gary Redenbacher said he will appeal if Buchwald rules against him. He praised Buchwald's consideration of the issue, but said the notion that the state lost its right back in the 1800s to assert its present-day interests in the land at Martins Beach is misguided.
"We can't let this lie. Every citizen in the state of California has an interest in this," he said. "If Vinod Khosla was not a billionaire and he wanted to go to the beach with his family, he'd be on our side too."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.