REDWOOD CITY -- The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office dropped trespassing charges Thursday against five surfers who ventured past a locked gate onto Martin's Beach, a move that highlights the murky legal status of the privately owned slice of California coast.
The San Mateo chapter of the Surfrider Foundation claimed the decision validates its push to re-establish public access to the beach, located a few miles south of Half Moon Bay. The road leading from Highway 1 to the cliff-lined cove was closed in 2008 shortly after the land was purchased for $37.5 million by a secretive owner widely presumed to be Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla.
Surfrider spokesman Michael Wallace called the move by the DA's office "a significant legal victory in favor of open beach access that reaches far beyond this specific case to all of California and the nation."
Assistant district attorney Al Serrato said the decision does not endorse either side of the Martin's Beach fight, but reflects the uncertainty surrounding the beach. Under previous ownership, the beach was available for public recreation for a small fee.
The key question in the clash over the property -- the subject of civil complaints filed in San Mateo County Superior Court -- is whether its historical use generated a public easement under California coastal law that guarantees ongoing access to the beach. Since the issue hasn't been resolved, Serrato said, it's difficult to determine whether the five surfers committed a crime.
"Our role is not determining whether there is an easement or isn't an easement," Serrato said. "Our role is limited to looking at the facts of the case and whether criminal charges are appropriate."
Joan Gallo, attorney for Martins Beach LLC, the listed owner of the property, said the trespassing case has no bearing on the larger fight over access to the beach. The proper venue for that question, she said, is civil court.
"The gate will remain locked," Gallo said.
Khosla, a venture capitalist, has neither confirmed nor denied his ownership. A letter from Martins Beach LLC to the Surfrider Foundation in 2011 asked the group to respect Khosla's privacy.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.