At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States acquired California from Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Treaty promised to honor Spanish and Mexican land grants. While it is decidedly not a land use statute, the Treaty played a key role in Friends of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1 LLC (Case No. A142035, April 27, 2016), a fascinating case that addressed a clash between the public and a billionaire property owner over the use and eventual closure of a road, parking area, and Martin’s Beach on 53 acres of land south of Half Moon Bay.

The property was once part of a larger tract of land known as the Rancho Cañada de Verde y Arroyo de la Purísima. The Rancho was the subject of a timely federal patent claim filed under the California Land Act of 1851 and ultimately confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Alviso, 64 U.S. 318 (1859).

Over time, the Rancho was divided into smaller parcels and conveyed to various persons, including the Deeney family, which acquired the 53-acre property in a series of transactions beginning in 1899. From the 1930s or earlier, the family had encouraged the public to use the road to access Martin’s Beach. They erected a billboard on nearby Highway 1 inviting the public to use the beach and provided a general store, public toilets, and a parking area. For some of that time they charged a $.25 entry fee.

The Deeney family sold the property for $32.5 million in 2008 to two LLCs created to buy the land for Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. The public was allowed continued use of the road, parking area, and beach until the fall of 2009, when the gate was locked, a “No Trespassing” sign was installed, and security was hired. Surfers and beach users protested the closure and filed suit when the LLCs refused to reverse course.

Friends of Martin’s Beach, an unincorporated association represented by Gary Redenbacher (yes, the grandson of “popcorn king” Orville Redenbacher), asserted that the general public had acquired nonexclusive rights and interests in the road, parking area, and beach based principally on the following theories:

  • California Constitution Article X, section 4 (Article X, section 4) prohibits owners of lands fronting navigable waters from excluding the right-of-way to such waters and entitles the public to an easement over the road and inland dry sand to access the tidelands; and
  • the prior owners of the property offered, by words and actions, to dedicate to the public access to the tidelands via Martin’s Beach Road, use of the inland dry sand and parking area, which the public accepted by using the road, beach and parking area for many decades.

In particular, Friends argued that Article X, section 4 entitles the public to an easement to use the road across the property for the purpose of gaining access to the beach. Friends’ argument ran headlong into another U.S. Supreme Court case, Summa Corp. ex rel. Lands Commission v. California, 466 U.S. 189 (1984), which held that the state acquired no public trust interest in lands to which title was confirmed under the 1851 Act patent process based on a Mexican land grant unless such interest was asserted by the state in the patent proceedings. Because the LLCs’ titles trace back to a provisional Mexican land grant, confirmed under the 1851 Act by the Supreme Court, without any mention of a public trust easement, the trial court concluded that no “part of the Property is held subject to the public trust.” Friends made a number of attempts to distinguish Summa and to convince the First District Court of Appeal that Article X, section 4 is distinct from the Public Trust Doctrine, all of which were denied.

Friends’ dedication claim was based on the conduct of those who owned the property from the early 1900s until the LLCs bought it in 2008 and the public’s use of the road and beach during that period. In essence, Friends alleged that the Deeney family invited the public to use the beach and the road to the beach both by words and conduct, specifically by posting a large billboard on the highway inviting the public to come to the beach by way of the road, by “welcoming all with open arms,” and by constructing public toilets, a parking area, and a convenience store catering to beach visitors. Friends argued that there are only two elements for express dedication—offer and acceptance—both of which were established by these facts.

The LLCs conceded the truth of those facts but argued that as a matter of law they could not establish an “express dedication.” Instead, according to the LLCs, in order for there to be an express dedication “very specific requirements” must be met. Specifically, the grant must be made in certain ways such as by a deed or formal writing, it must reserve specific uses to the grantor, and there must be acceptance by a public entity.

The trial court agreed with the LLCs that express dedication must be supported by specific requirements, and it found those requirements lacking here because an express dedication is not ordinarily based on payment of a fee. Moreover, the trial court held that by maintaining the billboard on their property, the public toilets, and the convenience store, the Deeneys were engaging in commercial advertising in furtherance of their private ownership rights that go back to the United States land patent. That commercial advertising did not constitute an express dedication of the road or of any form of public access from the ocean.

The First District Court of Appeal agreed with Friends that a claim for dedication has just two elements, an intention to dedication and acceptance. Unconcerned with the label of Friends’ claim, the court held that “A common law dedication does not require a writing, nor must the formalities of any statute, such as the statute of frauds, be satisfied. All that is necessary is sufficient evidence that the property owner either expressly or impliedly manifested an unequivocal intention to offer the property for a public purpose and that there was an acceptance of the offer by the public.” Even for express dedication, no particular words or form of expression are required. All that is required is that the owner’s intent to dedicate is manifested in the overt acts of the owner. Nor must an express dedication be accepted in a formal way or by a public entity. Rather, the cases hold precisely the opposite.

Applying the common law of dedication, the court held that there can be little doubt that the facts Friends alleged are sufficient to establish the elements of common law dedication, if they can be proven at trial. The court thus reversed the trial court’s grant of summary adjudication to the LLCs and remanded the case back to the trial court where the ultimate determination whether there was an intent to dedicate and an acceptance by the public will depend on all of the circumstances, as shown by the evidence the parties offer at trial.

We will continue to monitor this fascinating case, as the 52-page appellate opinion is surely not the end of the story. The decision represents a win and a loss, or a loss and a win, for both parties, and both parties have indicated their confidence going forward.