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Surfers Sue For Access To Blocked San Mateo County Beach

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Martin's Beach in San Mateo County. (CBS)

Martin’s Beach in San Mateo County. (CBS)

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SAN MATEO COUNTY (CBS / AP) — A group of surfers sued on Tuesday to regain public access to a popular San Mateo County beach where people held picnics and rode waves for decades before a new landowner closed the only road into the site.

Attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation filed the lawsuit against Martin’s Beach LLC in San Mateo County Superior Court.

“This case is clear and simple,” Mark Massara, an attorney for the foundation, said in a statement. “The property owner failed to obtain legally required permits for the gates and their actions to cut off access to a beach that has been open to the public for almost 100 years.”

The suit claims the owner of Martin’s Beach is violating the California Coastal Act by blocking the only access road from Highway 1 to the shoreline, which is public.

But the question of whether the private owners have a legal obligation to provide the public with beach access is one the courts will have to decide. The site is also home to about 45 bluff-top cabins on long-term leases.

Prior to the Martin’s Beach company purchasing the land, the road had been open to the public for a fee. The previous owner had operated a concession business at the beach, and so had a financial interest in maintaining and staffing the access road.

But the new owner, who bought the 53 coastal acres for $37.5 million in 2008, closed the road after deciding it did not want to operate the concession business, said Joan Gallo, the landowners’ attorney.

The Surfrider Foundation claims the owner needed to receive permission from the California Coastal Commission before closing the road.

The closure issue gained more widespread attention after five surfers were arrested for trespassing. The criminal case was later dropped.

Gallo said her client looks forward to the courts providing clarity on who should be responsible for operating any public access.

“They closed it with the hope that the rights of all the parties could be determined, and that’s what we’re hoping for,” Gallo said. “We want the courts to decide.”

While the beach is considered public under the California Coastal Act of 1976, the courts will decide whether the owner of the private land and its access road is obligated to continue providing access.

California’s coast is littered with cases where private landowners have blocked public access to the coast.

In the most famous example, film and music mogul David Geffen battled for decades to block public access to the beach in front of his Malibu compound. In 2007 he finally changed course and a public easement was added to his property.

Nancy Cave, who handles enforcement in the region for the California Coastal Commission, said she could not comment on the lawsuit, but noted the court’s decision will be important for helping sort out the future of access to the site.

“This is an important case to us,” Cave said. “The issue of public access is an important issue under the Coastal Act.”

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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