With sunny skies across Northern California beaches on Saturday, July 21, a spirited group of about 50 surfers, fishermen, and their families waved protest signs outside the gated road that used to provide public access to Martin's Beach.
The day's mantras, "Open the Gate!" and "Save Martin's Beach!" reflected the growing discontent among dedicated beach-goers who for years paid a per-vehicle fee to drive through the now-locked gate to the crescent-shaped cove, located about six miles south of downtown Half Moon Bay.
Those days of public access came to an end about three years ago, just after the cove's 89 acres were sold for $37.5 million to Martins Beach LLC. It's been widely reported that the man behind that business entity is billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, 57, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and leading investor in clean-energy technologies.
"It's fairly simple," Surfrider member Michael Wallace told ESPN.com over the phone as protesters peacefully assembled outside the locked gate along Highway 1. "We'll back off when [Khosla] sits down and negotiates a reasonable solution that's in everybody's interest."
The public has had access to Martin's Beach for generations, enjoying its picturesque seascapes, good surf, and seasonal smelt runs.
"The range of people that have shown up is really gratifying," added Wallace, referring to the roadside protest. "From a five-year-old kid to an 86-year-old women who's been coming to the beach here since she was six, before there were fees."
Leading up to the protest, San Jose Mercury News reported that former San Jose city attorney Joan Gallo, who now represents Martins Beach LLC, said the issue is a "fundamental constitutional property right" of the landowner to control or deny access. "There is no right of public access [at Martin's Beach]," she said. "The access has always been private by invitation."
But many of the protestors feel that's not true.
"[Khosla] isn't supposed to [shut down public access] unless he has permission from the county planning department," said Edmundo Larenas, chairman of Surfrider's San Mateo County Chapter. Larenas explained that when the public has had decades of entry across private property, sustained access via easement is essentially grandfathered into the terms of Kholsa's ownership.
Larenas added that the issue has also landed on the desk of the California Coastal Commission, which is tasked with enforcing many of the laws concerning beach access and coastal development along the Golden State's 840 miles of coastline.
We feel that it's necessary to keep the pressure on [Kholsa] to comply with the law," Larenas said. "In our view, he's trying to run roughshod over the Coastal Act."
Even the simple act of locking the gate across the private road to the beach requires a coastal development permit, according to Nancy Cave, supervisor of the Coastal Commission's Northern California enforcement program. That permit has not been granted.
"When they closed the gate, they changed the use of that property," she said. "Before they closed the gate, the public, in addition to the tenants, could use the property."
The sloping Martin's Beach property overlooking the sand is home to some 40 cottages, occupied by tenants, most of whose leases expire by 2021.
"The next step? Legally, it's in the hands of the Coastal Commission and San Mateo County," Larenas said. "We're planning another campaign, another protest. We just want to keep the pressure on."