Rough waters for California's not so public beaches

September 24, 2018 by Jocelyne Zablit
At Privates Beach in the Opal Cliffs area of Santa Cruz, California, there is a $100 annual access fee and an imposing gate, even though it is supposed to be a public beach

The sandy cove along California's picturesque coast beckons visitors to what is supposed to be a public beach. But the imposing gate, the security guard and the annual $100 access fee tell a different story.

Privates Beach, as the secluded spot in the city of Santa Cruz is known to locals, is at the center of an ongoing battle over the public's right to access the Golden State's fabled shoreline.

An hour's drive north sits Martin's Beach, where a David versus Goliath-type showdown has pitted a high-tech billionaire against surfers and state regulators.

For nearly a decade, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Vinod Khosla, who purchased the 53-acre (21.4-hectare) parcel for $32.5 million in 2008, has sought to limit access to the shoreline through his property.

Khosla has now taken the fight to the US Supreme Court, which is deciding whether to take on the case.

The two high-stakes disputes reflect the constant wave of legal challenges that have called into question California's landmark 1976 Coastal Act, which enshrines to the state's 1,271 miles (2,045 kilometers) of coastline.

Keep out the riff-raff

Most of the cases usually involve wealthy beachfront homeowners willing to go to great lengths—and to spend a great deal of money—to keep the riff-raff off the pristine sand.

Coastal access walkways lead to public beaches up and down California's coast, but here in Malibu, many homeowners are willing to go to great lengths—and to spend a great deal of money—to keep the riff-raff off the pristine sand
"It's relentless and it's just constant pressure," said Pat Veesart, who oversees enforcement of the Coastal Act in northern California.

"People who are wealthy enough, fortunate enough to be able to buy property along the coast are always trying to figure out a way to make them as exclusive as possible."

A majority of the challenges are concentrated in southern California, notably Malibu, where celebrities who live along the 27 miles of coast known as Billionaire's Beach have fought tooth and nail to keep their properties private.

"People go from just a little to quite far to discourage the public from using public lands," said Linda Locklin, manager of the state's coastal access program.

Some homeowners hire security guards to keep the public out, put up fake no parking or private signs, place cones in the roadway or file lawsuits that usually drag on for years, Locklin said.

'Paradise' lost

The homeowners argue that visitors produce litter, vandalize property and are a constant nuisance that can turn their dream homes into a nightmare.

"Once they opened this up, it was like the gates of hell were unlocked," Michael Lembeck, a film director, told AFP on a recent morning as he angrily pointed to an access path that opened in 2015 near his Malibu home.

Owners of multi-million-dollar beachfront homes in Malibu, shown here, and elsewhere in California argue that visitors to the public beaches produce litter, vandalize property and are a nuisance that can turn their dream homes into a nightmare
"It was paradise here until three years ago," he added. "A lot of people have moved... and we may be next."

The same arguments about privacy and security are echoed at Privates Beach—a cheeky name earned during its past incarnation as a nude beach.

Sean Johansen, a police officer walking on the beach with a fellow officer after surfing, said the fence and access fee were no "big deal."

"If they open that gate, there's a lot of speculation that it could bring unsavory types hanging out at the beach—homeless people and maybe people using narcotics," he told AFP.

Johansen, like half a dozen people interviewed at Privates, said anyone who did not wish, or could not afford, to pay the annual fee could easily go elsewhere.

"There are so many other beaches for people to go," said Jeff Lebeouf, a local homeowner. "That's the way it's been and that's the way I believe it should be because there are a lot of other options."

'I own Central Park'

But advocates of open beach access argue that should the gate operation continue and should Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, prevail in the nation's highest court, that could set a bad precedent and rewrite the rules governing California's coast.

Martin's Beach at Half Moon Bay, California was bought by tech billionaire Vinod Khosla a decade ago—since, he has been limiting access and charging fees to the general public in order to be able to enjoy the beach
"We see the beach as part of our soul," said Noaki Schwartz, a California native and spokesperson for the state's Coastal Commission. "It's very ingrained in California that the beaches are a gathering area."

Neither Khosla nor his attorney could be reached for comment for this article. But he told The New York Times in a recent interview that he was waging his battle on principle and doesn't even care much for the property.

"If this hadn't ever started, I'd be so happy," he told the Times. "But once you're there in principle, you can't give up principle."

For now, Martin's Beach is open to the public. But the surfers who use it say that could change overnight if Khosla succeeds in his legal battle.

"If the ownership were to prevail, that would set a precedent that would allow incredibly wealthy individuals to purchase land adjacent to the coast and slowly but surely turn that public resource into a private good," said Eric Buescher, an attorney representing the Surfrider Foundation, which sued Khosla.

"It's the equivalent of buying all the property around Central Park in New York and saying 'Ha, now I own Central Park'."

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11 comments

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meerling
4 / 5 (4) Sep 24, 2018
Oregon has had many run ins with Californian developers and purchasers of beachfront property getting pissed off with the oldest recognized law in the US, that the beaches of Oregon belong to everyone, and nobody can restrict their access.
It's considered the oldest law because it was originated by the indigenous population long before the European immigrants came to this continent, and was also recognized by them and written into their laws as well. It's been challenged many times, and nobody has ever come close to overturning it. :D
Doug_Nightmare
5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2018
4524 Opal Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. I have truly lived in the best of times and the worst of times.

It is called Private's Beach for traditionally being clothing optional and, therefore, requiring key access from a sympathetic local, and called Key Beach. There are too many newcomers in Santa Cruz.

It is walking accessible from the shore only at low water, thus confounding the traditional public access.
Anonym487115
2.6 / 5 (5) Sep 24, 2018
The same elitists who demand their private beaches to keep out "riff raff" are the same ones who have no problem telling the rest of us to accept homeless encampments and the influx of illegal aliens in the name of "diversity."
Doug_Nightmare
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
@Riff raff; spend some summers cleaning riff raff trash from 'your' beach before you encourage access. Local taxes pay for beach cleaning. Local taxes pay for 0400 silent garbage pickup from rubber tired dumpster skip boxes. Local taxes pay for lifeguards, equipment and training.

Live for a while in tourist paradise utopia and learn how much expense and work it takes to maintain paradise.

On the other hand/coast, I lived for a while on Seabrook Island featuring 15 miles of wide unspoiled beach, but with public access through swamps and marshes - NO tourists and no tourist trash.
uglysquid
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
I saw this episode of Monk already. Anyway, the analogy of "owning central park" is a good one. There exist public rights of way that will still be available, despite ownership of the surrounding property. That should also be the case here. The owner has complete control of access to private property, and if the only public right of way that exists is a difficult walk along the shore, blame the city planners.
sdchanman
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
10 dollar boat rides to the beach. Ha Ha
Vas Deferens
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 24, 2018
Can't we put half way houses for illegals aliens in these neighborhoods? Then present members of The Party(D) can be with future members of The Party(D).
agsb2
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
Something tell me the sea front in front of celebrities like Barbra Streisand isn't exactly free access!
Greensleeves
not rated yet Sep 24, 2018
"A lot of people have moved... and we may be next."...Uh, so what? Some people have some weirdly high opinion of themselves. Please...go...and live in the barrio, bro.
jpdemers
not rated yet Oct 01, 2018
Sounds like the problem is the local authorities, who have the power to create an easement, but prefer to do the bidding of the landed gentry.
keboeu
not rated yet Oct 08, 2018
Beach front property should be taxed according to it's allowing unregulated public access. Unlimited public access equals low or no taxes. Restrictions should raise taxes (massively) to the point that even the billionaires will notice the expense. The state will benefit and so will the public.

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