The California Coastal Commission on Thursday took what it called a "significant step toward restoring public access" at Martin's Beach in San Mateo County by calling on members of the public who have been there over the decades to fill out declarations saying so.
If results of the "prescriptive rights survey" posted online show that the public has been using the private road now owned by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla as if it were public land for at least five years, then a court could establish a continued right of public access, according to the commission.
The development adds another twist to California's highest-profile legal battle between those seeking public beach access and a private property owner who does not believe he is required to accommodate it.
The family that owned the property south of Half Moon Bay prior to Khosla's 2008 purchase had allowed the public for decades to stroll down the private road that provides the only land access to the beach -- or drive down and park for a fee.
Khosla initially allowed access at a higher fee but then closed the gate altogether in 2010 after he was told by county planning officials that he needed to open the gate year-round and lower the cost of parking to the historic rate of $2.
The billionaire known for his green investments said in a recent interview that he found those demands "unreasonable" and that any state requirement that he provide access violates his rights under the U.S. Constitution. Khosla has also said he feels that he has been unfairly targeted because of his wealth and high profile, an allegation commission officials deny, saying for years they knew of the owner only as Martins Beach 1 LLC and Martins Beach 2 LLC.
The commission's decision to conduct the survey comes as a San Mateo County Superior Court judge prepares to issue a ruling in a lawsuit filed against Khosla by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation alleging that he flouted the California Coastal Act by failing to seek a coastal development permit, required when use of the water or access to it is altered.
It seeks up to $20 million in fines against Khosla. The commission is not a party in the case.
A separate case claiming a right of public access under the California Constitution was decided in Khosla's favor last fall. In an unusual ruling, that San Mateo County Superior Court judge determined that because the property dates to a Spanish land grant and is held under a U.S. land patent there is no such right.
However, the judge noted in his ruling that those circumstances do not interfere with the Coastal Commission's right to seek some public access while issuing development permits. The ruling is under appeal.
Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester said in an interview Thursday that the survey results will assist in negotiations with Khosla. The commission has not decided "whether there would be some connection to a [future] commission action," he added.
"We are encouraged by recent conversations with [Khosla] so I am hopeful that we can continue to move forward in a constructive way," Lester said. "But we also felt at the same time that we should move forward with this step to make sure we are fully doing our job protecting access."
"I see this as an opportunity for us to gather the best information we can about what historic use has been," he said, "which will inform our continuing dialogue with him about how to protect public access while at the same time respecting his private property rights."
The concept of prescriptive has its roots in British Common Law, and is codified in the California Code of Civil Procedures and supported by existing case law, commission officials said. It requires first-person signed declarations.
"If you remember going there with your grandfather, and he doesn't have internet access, print the survey out and ask him to fill it in," Commission Enforcement Chief Lisa Haage said in a statement.
"If your sister or best friend from high school has moved out of state, or your cousins came to visit you from back east and you went to Martin's, send them the link to the website."