Property Owner to Maintain Public Beach Access Over Coastal Property - California Court of Appeal Weighs in on California Coastal Act

by Best Best & Krieger LLP

Best Best & Krieger LLP

Under the California Coastal Act, a beachfront property owner must maintain public access over his property — and will be required to seek a Coastal Development Permit if he wishes to limit such public access, a California appellate court has ruled. The opinion, published Aug. 9 in Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC, is another in a string of recent decisions that broadly interprets the California Coastal Act in favor of public access.
Martins Beach, in San Mateo County, is sheltered on the north and south by high cliffs, making it inaccessible except by a road: Martins Beach Road, which connects to Highway 1. The prior property owner allowed the public to access the beach and its parking area, for a small fee. However, in 2008, a billionaire capitalist bought the property fronting Martins Beach and later closed it off from public access. Specifically, in 2009, the new property owner permanently closed and locked a gate across Martins Beach Road, added “keep out” signs to the gate, changed the message on a billboard that previously advertised beach access, and hired security guards to deter the public from crossing over the property. Following these actions, the Surfrider Foundation, supported by the California Coastal Commission, filed suit against the property owner.
At issue was whether these actions by the new property owner constituted “development” of the property, such that the property owner should have sought a Coastal Development Permit under the California Coastal Act.
The First District Court of Appeal concluded that the new property owner’s actions constituted “development” under the Coastal Act, and therefore, the property owner would need to seek a Coastal Development Permit before taking those actions. The court relied on the language of the Coastal Act, which defines “development” as including, among a long list of other actions, a “change in the intensity of use of water, or of access thereto….” The court concluded that the series of actions taken by the new property owner constituted a “change in access” to Martins Beach. Therefore, according to the court, the property owner would need to seek a Coastal Development Permit to lawfully take the actions he had taken.
The Court of Appeal also held that, if the property owner wants to ask a court to decide whether the Coastal Development Permit requirement is an unconstitutional “taking” of his property, the property owner must first seek such a permit. The court concluded that a takings claim that challenges the application of regulations to particular property is not “ripe” until the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of those regulations to the property. Therefore, because this property owner never sought a Coastal Development Permit, he was foreclosed from challenging the legality of the permit requirement.
Finally, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling, which forced the property owner to maintain public access to the beach to the same extent such access was provided by the prior owner. The appellate court determined that, because the access imposed by the trial court is, in the court’s view, “temporary,” it did not constitute an unconstitutional “taking.” Interestingly, the court recognized that, technically, the property owner could choose to not seek a Coastal Development Permit, but instead simply comply with the trial court’s ruling and maintain public access to the beach. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal, without analysis, concluded that this fact does not convert the trial court’s ruling into a permanent taking.
This ruling represents a continuation in a line of recent cases in which courts have broadly interpreted the California Coastal Act in a manner that favors public access to coastal resources to the detriment of private property owners’ rights, including the long-recognized right to exclude members of the public from private property. Whether this trend continues or is halted by a higher court remains to be seen.

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