Legislation aimed at reopening Martin’s Beach has traveled a rocky path the last few months, but it jumped another hurdle Thursday after being taken out of suspense and will now make its way to the Assembly floor.
As coastal rights activists rose against the wealthy property owner closing the only access road to the secluded crescent-shaped beach just south of Half Moon Bay, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, created Senate Bill 968 as a bargaining chip.
SB 968 would require billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who purchased the property for $32.5 million in 2008, to negotiate with the State Lands Commission, or SLC, to create public access. The bill passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee 12-5 and will head to the floor for a vote next week. If it passes the Assembly, it will return to the Senate floor for a concurrence vote as it was amended.
“I love the coast of California from one end to the other. It is beautiful and unique, every inch is different and it’s something that does belong to everyone,” Hill said. “Because of its beauty and recreational potential and the fact that the state law requires that the public have access to it, I don’t want a part of San Mateo County to be deprived, residents of California to be deprived of that beautiful beach.”
Hill said he was pleasantly surprised to receive full Democratic support in the Appropriations Committee as Khosla hired lobbyists who have vigorously worked against SB 968.
California Strategies’ Rusty Areias, a former coastal commissioner, and Ted Harris were hired by Khosla and are lobbying against the bill. Areias and Harris argue that Martin’s Beach is private property, that opening it to the public would force Khosla to run it as a business, impose financial commitments and that enacting legislation in a complicated case hinders negotiations.
The bill, which easily passed the state Senate in May, had a setback and was stricken of its most forceful language in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources in June, Hill said, due to misinformation Areias spread. The bill originally instructed the SLC to use eminent domain if a compromise with Khosla cannot be met by Jan. 1, 2016.
As amended, the bill now encourages, instead of requires, the SLC to take an easement in the interests of public beach access.
Although specific language was removed from the bill, the semantics remain the same as the SLC already retains the authority to use eminent domain and could still acquire a right-of way access through condemnation.
However, the SLC has never used condemnation.
“What the bill says today, is it gives the state a year to negotiate with him over some resolution to access,” Hill said. “Because it’s tied so closely to the State Lands Commission, which has the authority to condemn the property if they felt that there was a need in order to gain access, that’s why the fight is so hard.”
There are two pending civil lawsuits that seek to reopen Martin’s Beach and the California Coastal Commission has a survey asking the public to provide testimony to affirm the land was treated as though it were public for at least five years. Martin’s Beach was previously accessible to the public for nearly 100 years.
Areias said the media has created an inaccurate fairy tale and, when the previous owners decided to sell the property, California State Parks, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the Nature Conservancy turned it down.
Harris and Areias said the legal and geographical issues at Martin’s Beach have been oversimplified. Last year, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald found the beach was subject to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, so it originated from a Mexican land grant that was confirmed by a federal patent and the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike most beaches where public land begins at the tide lines, due to a century of erosion, the private property line ends a few hundred feet into the ocean, Areias said.
“I can’t think of a worse case to apply condemnation than Martin’s Beach because you’re applying it to a beach that has clearly has unique property rights as a rancho with a patent through the Supreme Court and it almost certainly would increase the temperature, fuel the media circus, lead to additional litigation and hinder a genuine solution,” Harris said.
Opening the gate
Areias and Harris said Khosla was willing to open the gate through the end of the year but hasn’t because it would be a media frenzy and there are concerns over trespassing. Hill said opening the gate through the end of the year was not a compromise and wants an agreement to keep it open in perpetuity.
An appeal is currently pending in the Buchwald case and a lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation, which alleges Khosla violated the California Coastal Act by failing to garner mandated permits before closing the gate, is awaiting a ruling.
‘It doesn’t have to be 24/7’
Hill said Areias has lobbied hard against a bill that simply seeks to negotiate a reasonable and fair settlement and also acknowledges Khosla’s property rights but, more importantly, empowers the public to have access to a beloved piece of coast.
“All he has to do is come to the table and seriously negotiate a settlement on permanent access to the beach. That is the goal. It doesn’t have to be 24/7, it doesn’t have to be every day of the year, but he needs to do something that’s permanent,” Hill said. “He feels that he’s holding all the cards and that whatever he negotiates would be out of his generosity and magnanimous of him. … He will not out of his generosity, I don’t believe, open the beach in any permanent form. So the legislative and legal process is moving forward … to put the public in a better position to negotiate a fair settlement.”
SB 968 will be taken up on the Assembly floor and likely voted on either Tuesday or Wednesday. Should it pass, it would return to the Senate for a concurrence vote as it was amended in the Assembly.
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