July 29, 2015 5 min read
Hollister Ranch, Martin's Beach, and the battle for public access
Vinod Khosla wants you to stay the hell off his beach. A co-founder of Sun Microsystems, noted multi-billionaire, and occasionally celebrated green-tech crusader, Khosla paid $37.5 million in 2008 for Martin’s Beach, a 53-acre parcel situated about 25 miles south of San Francisco in San Mateo County. The last thing he wants is a bunch of plebes traipsing around on his breathtakingly expensive sand, or crossing his beach to surf the lumpy, fogbound breaks out front. Khosla doesn’t live there, of course, but he’d like you to steer clear of his beach anyway. And to help keep you off his property, he’s closed the only public access across the coastal landscape fronting Martin’s. Activists, led by the Surfrider Foundation, have taken Khosla to court, accusing the reclusive billionaire of violating California law by blocking public access to the beach. So far, the courts have agreed and are trying to force Khosla to allow access (as of July, the public has had sporadic access to Martin’s, though local sheriffs are reportedly not citing any Martin’s beachgoers). Khosla’s ultimately going to lose this fight. Which is good. But he’s going to fight on anyway, which is bad if you live in the area and want to surf Martin’s without having to look over your shoulder for private security on your way to the water.
You may be thinking to yourself, well, what’s the big deal? Khosla owns the property; it’s his right to keep the kids off his lawn. Well, the big deal is that for decades the previous owners of Martin’s Beach had allowed the public to cross the now-closed gate and use a private road to get down to the sand. And the California Constitution declares that all beaches up to the mean high tide line—any beach not owned by the military, anyway—are public property. Normally the law allows property owners to keep the landless hordes from sliming their way across privately held land on their way to a beach. But since the public had used Martin’s Beach Road for decades before Khosla bought the land and shut down the party, a bit of California law called a prescriptive easement kicked in. That means that if the public has traditionally used a bit of private property (in this case, the road), the state has the authority to claim that private land as public. This is why Khosla will lose his fight. People have always had access to Martin’s Beach; Khosla would have, or should have, known that when he bought the land; therefore, he can’t just act all biliionaire-y and cut off long-used access. Case (eventually, after thousands of dollars in legal fees) closed.
For Khosla to lose this case would be right, and it would be just. It also brings to mind an unavoidable parallel—Hollister Ranch. If the public can take a landowner to court to re-open Martin’s, then why not the Ranch? Ugh. Even asking that question makes me shudder. If the state ever tries to raze the Hollister Ranch guardhouse in order to open up that bit of hallowed surfing ground to the public, I’d like to think that I’d be right there, standing arm in arm with property owners, laying my hypocritical ass down in front of the bulldozers if necessary.
In fact, as you read this, litigation is being, well, litigated, in a case before the Santa Barbara Superior Court that has the potential to finally open the Ranch to all comers. It seems that decades ago the YMCA, which owned a parcel, made a deal granting the state permission to build a public path through the Ranch. The state sat on that offer for some 30 years before deciding last year, ok, sure, they’ll take that offer after all. The Hollister Ranch Owners Association immediately sued the state of California to block that arrangement, and now it’s all up to the courts. A lawyer I spoke with about the lawsuit told me that if the Ranch loses this battle, he guesses that the case will eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is awesome, because when else can you hear Justice Scalia talk about Little Drakes?
Martin’s? Sure, open that place back up. The Ranch, however, is unique. It’s magical. If you’ve never surfed there, the idea of the place probably sounds abhorrent—an idyllic surf playground for the rich and privileged. If you have surfed there, you probably think it’s the last, best place in California. In reality, the Ranch is a little bit of both. Many owners did it the hard way, and worked their asses off for the extra cash to nab a parcel; others bought in during the ‘60s and ‘70s when the prices were lower. Yes, some people frolicking around at the Ranch were indeed born with silver thrusters in their quivers, and sure, James Cameron will occasionally fly his helicopter into the Ranch, alighting wealthily on his trillion-dollar estate. But that’s beside the point. What matters most about the Ranch is that it’s really a 14,000-acre time capsule harking back to an era when California had yet to be royally fucked. The first time I went to the Ranch, I looked like one of the paleontologists from Jurassic Park, walking around and gaping at something I’d thought had long ago gone extinct—untrammeled Southern California.
That untrammeled quality is the part most worth saving. The surf is great, but it gets crowded there too. It’s the pristine environment that matters. Regardless of your feeling about private property rights, the Hollister Ranch Homeowners Association has done a masterful job of preserving their little stretch of California heaven. It’s like a museum, just one that sells memberships for $300,000. So far, the only thing that’s kept the exhibits in mint condition has been the restricted access and that mammoth price of admission. The only other organization that does such a great job of preserving California’s wild coastline is the U.S. Armed Forces. But nobody’s clamoring to open up Camp Pendleton or Vandenberg Air Force Base to get to their off-limits beaches.
But it’s an untenable position to have really, supporting the opening of Martin’s, but wringing one’s hands in worry over public access to the Ranch. It’s unexplainable and it’s unjustifiable. Legally, Hollister Ranch probably has the court on its side; it’s always been managed as private property and there’s no tradition of public use as there is at Martin’s. But morally? Not such a slam-dunk case.