On October 1, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Martins Beach 1, LLC v. Surfrider Foundation (Docket No. 17-119), a high-profile property rights case involving Martin’s Beach in the County of San Mateo.
The 89-acre property was held open to the public for many decades, for a small fee. Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla eventually purchased the property in 2008. The business was operated at a loss however, and a year later Khosla decided to permanently close and lock a gate to the public, add signs to the gate, change the messages on a billboard on nearby Highway 1, and hire security guards to deter the public from crossing or using the property to access the beach.
Khosla’s actions triggered numerous lawsuits addressing the extent to which the public had a right to access the Martin’s Beach. In 2013, the Surfrider Foundation argued that Khosla should have obtained a Coastal Development Permit before reducing the public’s access to the ocean. In particular, Surfrider alleged that Khosla had caused a “change of the intensity of use” of the coastline under the California Coastal Act.
The San Mateo Superior Court agreed and ruled, in 2014, that Khosla was required to “cease preventing the public from accessing and using the water” unless and until a CDP is obtained. California’s First District Court of appeal affirmed, holding that requiring Khosla to allow public access to the beach was not an unconstitutional “taking” of his property, for which he should be compensated, because the access requirement was not necessarily permanent. Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC, 14 Cal.App.5th 238 (2017). We wrote about that decision here.
After the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, Khosla petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether a compulsory public-access easement of indefinite duration is a per se physical taking and whether applying the Coastal Act to require a private landowner to apply for a permit before excluding the public constitutes a taking.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case ends this particular chapter in the litigation. Many are declaring the outcome a victory for the Coastal Act. Given that the Act was not in fact litigated in the nation’s highest court, however, I am not so sure the Court’s decision is any particular victory for the law itself. The Court’s decision may be a function of the question whether the case was “ripe” for review because Khosla has yet to seek a CDP to reduce the public’s access to Martin’s Beach.
Moreover, because Khosla retains the right to seek to “change the intensity of use” of Martin’s Beach, it seems virtually certain the determined Khosla will apply for a CDP. While Khosla will be required to allow public access until he applies for and obtains a permit to change access, the ultimate future of Martin’s Beach has yet to be finally settled.