SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, surfers, smelt fishermen and picnickers flocked to Martin's Beach — a crescent-shaped haven south of Half Moon Bay, backed by stunning cliffs.
They paid a small entry fee to the family that ran the property for a century, and their good times were memorialized in bucolic postcards. Then in 2008 a new owner came along and barred the gate, spurring protests and a spate of litigation.
That battle intensified Tuesday when a suit was filed on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, alleging that the limited liability companies that own the land — with a Silicon Valley billionaire behind them — are in violation of the California Coastal Act.
Helping to litigate the case is former Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey. Now 85, the co-founder of Earth Day plans to lead a group of surfers down to the beach Thursday in protest. They will march past the locked gate and down private Martin's Beach Road, which the suit calls "the traditional and only beach access route."
Filed in San Mateo County Superior Court, the lawsuit contends the land owner failed to seek required permission from the county or California Coastal Commission before padlocking it, "painting over billboards advertising public access, and … stationing armed guards at the property."
The actions "were taken with total disregard for the laws that protect California's coastal areas and for the public's use and enjoyment of one of the most desirable and historic beaches in Northern California," it said.
If the conflict sounds familiar, it should. It is the latest to pit the public against wealthy coastal landowners — among them music producer David Geffen, who unlocked his Malibu gate in 2005 after a 22-year fight.
This tale begins with the Deeney family, which ran a general store and maintained public bathrooms at Martin's, charging 25 cents entry back in the day. In time, surfers came to dominate the "natural theme park with sand." The price went up, but not by much.
The Deeneys sold their 53 acres for $37.5 million to two LLCs: Martins Beach 1 and Martins Beach 2. Although the man behind the entities has sought anonymity, media accounts have identified him as venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who made a fortune in clean technology.
San Jose Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold in 2011 penned this public appeal to Khosla: "It's time to let the public back into Martin's Beach.... Not because it's legally proper. Not because you face political pressure. But because it's the right thing to do."
But the courts already had been pulled into the struggle.
After San Mateo County officials in 2009 warned the new owner that a coastal development permit was needed to bar the gate and alter public access, the LLCs filed suit against the county and coastal commission. While they sought a declaration that they were "not required to allow public access to Martin's Beach at all," the judge instead ruled that they first had to "comply with the administrative process provided by the California Coastal Act."
The land owner did nothing. The gate stayed locked.
So the coastal commission tried to broker a compromise, chief of enforcement Lisa Haage said. Officials offered to consider moving the access road, to find a nonprofit to operate the entry and to close on rainy days when the beach was muddy. But the talks went nowhere.
The disappearance of what long was affordable coastal access, said coastal commission Executive Director Charles Lester, is "of significant concern to us."
The legal battle heated up last year when a group calling itself Friends of Martin's Beach sued the owner, claiming he was violating the state Constitution by denying tideland access. That suit is pending.
Meanwhile, five surfers arrested for skirting the gate in an act of protest lucked out last month, when the San Mateo County district attorney's office dropped trespassing charges, saying the question of whether historic use generated a public easement remained unanswered.
Joan Gallo, a former San Jose city attorney who represents the land owner, agreed that the courts should weigh in. The Deeneys had run a private business, she said, allowing invitees of their choosing onto the property, and that hadn't changed.
"It seems to us that it's an important issue to be litigated," Gallo said. "I have a strong belief that the Constitution doesn't require you to give up property rights or conduct a business you don't want to conduct."
Mark Massara — a surfer and attorney who is working with McClosky and the law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy on the case — said he believed the constitutional arguments have merit. But since that approach could drag on for years (think Geffen), his team opted for "a very narrow strike to the heart of this thing."
If a court determines the owner was aware that permits and approvals were required under the Coastal Act, daily civil fines could add up to tens of millions of dollars. The suit also seeks a temporary restraining order to prevent further development while litigation is pending, and a permanent injunction barring the owner from blocking access without a permit.
In a twist, Massara and Khosla appeared together in a 2008 Vanity Fair group portrait, deemed "Golden State eco-warriors … joined by their commitment to bringing about a greener world."
Said Massara: "I'm looking forward to working with him again."