By: Paolo Skyrus
If you haven’t heard of Martins Beach south of Half Moon Bay, you’re missing out. This lovely white sanded location has been the location of numerous fond memories of the surrounding community. However, it has also been part of a problematic property dispute that has lasted for years. Ever since venture capitalist and billionaire Vinod Khosla purchased the land, it’s been the job of Surfrider Foundation and attorneys such as Eric Bruecher to continue the battle to keep Martins Beach accessible to the public. I got a chance to talk to Bruecher to get the inside scoop on the conflict.
Q: What was your role in the Martins Beach case?
We represented Surfrider Foundation, the plaintiff. They approached us in 2013 to file a lawsuit alleging that the owner of Martins Beach violated the Coastal Act – I, [worked on it] along with a couple other attorneys here and [a] guy name Mark Massara who was at another law firm. They had violated the law by closing the beach and blocking access. We’ve been working on this since early 2013 until now, so it’s been almost give full years.
Q: What’s your stance on the issue in general? What do you think about Mr. Khosla purchasing the land and making it private?
Access to public resources is something that’s incredibly important to Californians [and] to me, whether that is the beach or the national parks and Yosemite or Lake Tahoe or whatever that may be. The idea that somebody would say, “Well I know there’s this publicly-owned resource, but I’m gonna block the only way there” is like, kind of contrary to this long-held belief stating that the coast, the lakes, the waterways, the public parks, are valuable public resources for everyone. That for me is a fight worth having.
And those people who live maybe twenty-five minutes inland, you’re only a half an hour from the coast, but you have so little access. [This sometimes aligns with]socioeconomic and racial disparities. Those are important fights worth having, too, to protect that resource for everybody. This is one example of that. You can only have so many battles at once, and this was a great situation where we felt we could stand up for the public in general, to say “this stuff matters.”
Q: What was your biggest challenge or obstacle during this case?
We faced a real fight from the get-go. They were not going to concede an inch. That’s their right and I understand that, but…it’s hard, especially when the other side has sort of an unlimited bankroll to spend.
If you want to take something that existed as a public access point for a hundred years and close that, you have to ask permission first. And that’s all we told them they had to do. We didn’t say that the permit application could or could not be granted, we just said you have to go apply. And they’ve said no to that for five years now.
Q: What reason do you think Mr. Khosla would have for purchasing and restricting the beach to the public? Do you think he was prepared for the backlash?
I don’t know what his rationale is. He testified at our trial very briefly on some limited things. He said he didn’t recall having any plans for the beach, and I don’t know why it is that we ended up where we did. Some of Surfrider’s representatives long before we were involved had reached out to him back in like 2009 shortly after this dispute started. [Surfrider] said, “Hey, what’s the story here? Why is the gate closed? It hasn’t been closed for a hundred years. This is important to the community we’d like to sit down and figure out what we can do about this. We understand that you may not want to have hundreds of people crossing your property all the time, that’s understandable. We get that, so let’s see if we can work something out.’ And the response back was essentially like, from his attorney: ‘We’re not interested in talking.’
I don’t know what the motivation is. At some point somebody on that side made an election that they were going to dig their heels in and say ‘No, we’re not gonna comply, we’re not gonna do this,’ and for seven years we’ve been kind of dealing with the consequences of that, but I don’t know who made that decision or why that was why that was done.
Q: So they have people on a schedule or something?
Yeah, [that’s] generally how they’ve done it. Very few days since we got involved, [and] filed our lawsuit has the beach actually been open, and generally it’s open from like nine to four, nine to five – something like that, if then you pay ten dollars to park. It’s a really cool place you should check it out. We went during the trial. We actually got to go down there with the judge.
We get down there it’s like seventy-three degrees. There’s not a cloud in the sky, and you couldn’t make this stuff up: there’s two guys at the other end of the beach surfing. It’s a long expanse of kind of white sandy beach, very different from a lot of beaches in Northern California. As we’re walking down the road that is right at the beachfront, there’s these series of little cabins or vacation homes down there. We’re walking down in front of them talking, ‘oh this what this used to be’ and ‘that’s an old store.’ There’s literally like, fifteen yards offshore maybe three sea lions just bobbing up and down.
And [they were] swimming down next to us. We’d walk a hundred yards and look out and they’d swim up and stop, just straight out checking out seeing what was going on. It was like there was no way that after going down there the judge was gonna say ‘Yeah we should close this place.’