Save Martin’s Beach! Preserve the History of Public Access
In the Green Room with Mike Wallace
One of our favorite haunts is the not-so-secret spot of Martin’s Beach just ten minutes south of Half Moon Bay. A short drive down a winding, pot-holed road leads through scrubby farmland to the beach, allowing a quick surf check from the cliff before committing to the $15 parking fee on the rare occasions now when the gate is opened. Since the property changed hands, however, the new owners have painted over the old billboard advertising access and shut down access for all but the remaining residents. The epic beach survives, but appears to be lost to corporate greed and development. Or is it?
Straight out front of the shuttered Deeney family market lies a rolling and jacking reef break leading to the soft inside sandbar. To the south is a thumping reef that bends and stands up both south and north swells for hollow funnels at low tide and fun rollers at high tide. All this is set inside an amphitheater in the form of a unique pyramid formation of rocks that even features a tunnel running from north to south.
Generations of coastsiders and curious visitors have found the secluded and dramatic backdrop just the tonic for a quick get-away for surfing, fishing, and family frolicking. Forty-five ramshackle cottages squat in a worn vigil on the terraced cliff above the main beach, grandfathered in and pre-dating Coastal Commission restrictions. If you just squint your eyes a little on a bright sunny day, the peeling paint and decay blurs, and you could be transported to any number of Mediterranean villages.
Maverick’s pioneer Jeff Clark recalls the days when access cost only 25 cents and local families took full advantage of the mystical and multi-faceted playground, when “we used to paddle out, climb over the rocks and shoot the tunnel to surf alone for hours.” Now Jeff’s rebuilding a broken-down old powerboat to get back to the surf spots of his youth.
After years of working the land, owner Rich Deeney sold the property—rumored at under $40 million—and reportedly invested in land and a former B&B on the east side of Highway 1 to spend more time with the grandkids and less time herding cattle and growing hay. From the subterfuge and mystery surrounding the change of ownership, the predominant vibe has been a palpable sense of doom; current residents’ cabin leases will expire in 2021 and have no further claim to their property and lifestyle, while non-residents have been shut out. Strangely, several properties are still listed for sale, ranging in price from $110–175k in what amounts to a glorified rental, since the value will zero out in eleven years.
Some intrepid surfers we’ve interviewed have been rumored to park up on the highway and make the longer trek in to still surf Martin’s beaches, only to face trespassing threats and, in some cases, allegedly finding their tires deflated while attempting to get reacquainted with the area’s charms. One anonymous local was confronted by security guards when attempting to walk in to the beach a couple months back. He warned them in no uncertain terms not to touch his vehicle, claiming that it was a violation of California Coastal Commission law to deny access. One of the guards let slip that the “public” bathrooms were in a state of disrepair and this was the “pretext” for the “temporary beach closure.” Certainly, no attempt has been made to install portable toilets in the meantime, while just the fact that there were public bathrooms and a general store suggests a long history of public access.
These reactions by the new owners are unacceptable and completely ignorant of the history of access and the loss to the community of slamming the gates shut. Just how wrong-headed this combative approach is will be proven when plans for development or changes on the property are inevitably undertaken. Even worse, the “temporary closures” may be a cover to demonstrate that public access has not been continuous and, therefore, is not legally defensible. Any attempts at zoning changes or new construction will face full review by the California Coastal Commission, where community input will be considered. In the meantime, it is up to coastsiders to bring pressure to bear on the new owners to reopen the property.
Local families have already started a facebook page, “Friends of Martin’s Beach, CA”, that has some great historic photos, and familiar names like Cunha and Duarte populate its pages, mourning the loss of their childhood memories. This is a great place to start to galvanize support to coordinate a campaign to reopen the beach that transcends generations and the attempts to shutter it for good from public access.
As the Friends page poignantly states: “This is for all of the people who loved Martin’s Beach, CA, and the way it was before. For all the families that spent their days fishing, watching the Pelicans and sea lions and enjoying the tide pools. Feel free to share your memories and pictures of one of California’s most beautiful and unique beaches.”
As Joao De Macedo, Program Manager of Save the Waves Coalition in Davenport explains it: “It speaks volumes that one of the most legendary surfers in Half Moon Bay, Jeff Clark, is passionate about that reef. Public beach access is an important free resource for humanity—one of the most beautiful things. Like a natural theme park with sand. Even a limited entrance fee to maintain the beach is acceptable, but to completely gate it off is just wrong. The reef, tide pools, and unique rock formation have inspired generations of families, fishermen, and the local community. This is not just a surfing spot.”
Precedents for access have been set in communities such as Malibu, where wealthy residents attempted to block passage to and along the beaches with private security, fencing, etc. As the Coastal Commission states, “Along the California coast the general public has historically used numerous coastal areas. Trails to the beach, informal parking areas, beaches, and bluff tops have provided recreational opportunities for hiking, picnicking, fishing, swimming, surfing, diving, viewing and nature study. California law provides that under certain conditions, long term public access across private property may result in the establishment of a permanent public easement. This is called a public prescriptive right of access.”
The Surfrider Foundation has dedicated some of its finite resources to campaigning for coastal access, in addition to maintaining clean water, education, and other environmental programs. Under the topic of coastal access, the group cites the California Coastal Act of 1976 that states one of its main goals is to “Maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources, conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.” Unfortunately, those the public’s rights tend to expire without community activism to uphold the law and establish and maintain easements for access.
Rufino Hernandez Vega enjoyed soaking up the mystery of the spot and taking photos of its moody backdrop. Having grown up in Puerto Rico and Hawaii where beach access is vital to tourism, he warned: “What bothers me is that it seems like such a violation of our rights as human beings and our heritage. That shouldn’t be restricted, but enjoyed by all of us. Surfers, fishermen, and families are generally pretty green-friendly and conscientious visitors, so why are the new owners being so secretive?”
Rumors have swirled that “Do No Evil” Google purchased the property, though a knowledgeable local realtor suggested that an anonymous “Silicon Valley venture capitalist” was the new owner. A title search of the property reveals that 22325 Cabrillo Highway South in Half Moon Bay, 94019 has been divided into two parcels: Martins Beach 1 Llc for Parcel # 066-330-230 and Martins Beach 2 Llc for Parcel # 066-330-240. A “Limited Liability Company” (Llc) is a company structure that essentially shields the identity of the individual or company who now owns the property, as does the mailing address of 1760 The Alameda #300, San Jose, CA 95126, which is most likely the CPA or attorneys retained to create those companies.
A spokesman for the San Mateo Planning and Building Department was contacted about the beach closure and what building permits were being sought by the new owners. He acknowledged that his department has “an open investigation and cannot comment on the details.” This is actually critical, as it suggests that someone has already made a complaint about a zoning violation or that the new owner has made a petition for a permit to build or redevelop on the Martin’s Beach property. Ultimately, if the community’s access is denied, the community will have a say once the process is made public.
The Coastal Commission requires that in the case of private housing development along the coast any entity requesting permits must provide an “Offer to Dedicate” or grant public access through their property to the beach vertically and laterally in areas where evidence can be found of long-term beach access for five years or more. Martin’s has been accessible since the 1950s and should amply qualify. The catch is that a government agency such as the city or county, Parks and Recreation, POST, or some other official group must accept the responsibility and liability for maintaining the easements for beach access in exchange for public title to those specified paths. If such an “Offer to Dedicate” is not accepted by an agency within 21 years, it can be permanently lost.
Surfrider also points out that the city of Half Moon Bay can specifically require that the new owners grant the access paths to the city directly in order to receive permits for redevelopment. That’s where public pressure again could be critical going forward. Surfrider Counsel Angela Howe warns that prescriptive easements can get sticky unless the public access was “continuous and uninterrupted” and the fact that the previous owners charged a fee suggests there was no apparent “right of access.” This could also shed light on the cynical tactic of the new owners actively interrupting public access, which then effectively becomes a self-fulfilling legal interruption. Common law equity, however, can still argue that access specifically to coastal assets should be retained where it has been available in the past.
As local Maverick’s charger Tim West observes, “That beach area has been a great getaway from town, not only for a day at the beach stretching out in the sun, but also for bringing the family down for a picnic. The fishing is great since the water drops off pretty deep right from the beach. The people who live there are always respectful if you share the same vibe with them. There is a lot of history in this small community that has deep roots. We should be able to access the beach area without opposition.”
Ultimately, Martin’s fate may lay in the hands of the Coastal Act of California, Section 30604 (c), which provides that “Every coastal development permit issued for any development between the nearest public road and the sea or shoreline of any body of water located within the coastal zone shall include a specific finding that the development is in conformity with the public access and public recreation policies of Chapter 3.”
In the meantime it is up to the public to exert pressure, raise the stakes for the new owners and keep a spotlight shining on the issue. The campaign to “Save Trestles” in Southern California and “Keep the country COUNTRY!” on the North Shore of Oahu were successful precisely because of unwavering public support, spearheaded by the surf community. This set a strong precedent for the power of targeted protest, aligned with the legal resources of enlightened organizations like Surfrider and Save the Waves.
Now it’s time to Save Martin’s!
Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose.