HALF MOON BAY -- Pete McCloskey hadn't been to Martin's Beach in 65 years, but he had no trouble remembering where the kegs were stationed during his last visit.
"We had a beer bust here," said the former congressman and war hero, pointing to the spot where he and about 30 other Stanford University freshmen spent a pleasant afternoon in 1947.
How many kegs qualify as a bust? "I don't know," he said. "There was enough."
McCloskey, 85, returned to the crescent-shaped beach on a foggy Thursday morning in an unusual dual role. He was both a protester and a principal in the law firm that is suing the coastal property's owner to reopen a private road that winds down to the shore from state Highway 1. McCloskey figured his defiant stroll might get him arrested -- instead he and several surfing advocates got a sheriff's escort.
"The sheriff says, 'Hell, no, we're not going to arrest you,' " explained McCloskey, who later spent several minutes leaning against a blue-on-white sheriff's SUV, shooting the breeze with a deputy.
The small protest was designed to ratchet up the pressure on the furtive owner of the 89-acre property, publicly listed as Martins Beach LLC but presumed to be Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. The new owner bought the land in 2008 for $37.5 million and immediately locked a gate at the top of the road, an act that ended a nearly century-old tradition of fee-based public access to the beach.
McCloskey has a long history as an environmental leader. During his 15 years representing the Peninsula as a Republican congressman, he helped found Earth Day in 1970 and co-authored the Endangered Species Act in 1973. He quit the Republican Party in 2007.
"For a guy to close a road to the beach is an outrage," said McCloskey. "Even down in Malibu all those millionaires can't block people from using the beach. It belongs to everybody."
McCloskey was joined by a handful of supporters, including surfer and attorney Mark Massara, who on Tuesday joined McCloskey's firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in filing a lawsuit against Martins Beach LLC. The suit claims in part that Martins Beach LLC needed a coastal development permit to lock the gate, noting that the definition of development under California coastal law includes a change in the intensity of a property's use.
Joan Gallo, attorney for Martins Beach LLC, said this week that the key issue is whether the public has a right to access a private road. Gallo argues such access is subservient to the owner's constitutional property rights.
"The courts are going to have to decide that," Gallo said, "and the sooner they decide, the better."
As McCloskey watched from shore Thursday, Portuguese big-wave rider and occasional Half Moon Bay High School surfing instructor Joäo De Macedo surfed off the southern end of the cliff-lined beach. It was his first time surfing that break, which he described as unusual for the San Mateo County coast. It features a reef, he said, making for longer-lasting waves.
"This is a really a good training break," De Macedo said as he emerged from the ocean. "You get a longer wave, so you can connect maneuvers."
Rob "Birdlegs" Caughlan, former president of the Surfrider Foundation, surfed Martin's Beach dozens of times back when the previous owners charged visitors a $5 entry fee. He said the new owner miscalculated in taking on California's long-standing support for coastal access.
"I can't believe how you're a billionaire, you don't think this kind of thing through," Caughlan said. "We always win these fights. So for Vinod Khosla to come in here and think he can push all of us around is really shortsighted."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.