HALF MOON BAY -- Two weekends ago, a group of five surfing buddies wandered onto a deserted San Mateo County beach, and may have waded into a battle that could reverberate up and down the California coast.
On Oct. 21, the Half Moon Bay residents strolled past a gate and down a road to Martin's Beach, which for several years has been the site of a tug-of-war between local residents and the investor who owns the only landward way onto the cliff-protected, crescent-shaped sliver of sand.
"We decided we want to go surf Martin's Beach. I'd been down there before just to check out the beach and hadn't had any trouble," said Jonathan Bremer, 27, one of several surfers now facing misdemeanor charges.
Rather than civil disobedience in neoprene, the five say they just wanted to try out a reef break that they'd seen Maverick's founder Jeff Clark reference in a surfing article. They knew about the controversy, but after Bremer read the state's Coastal Act, they decided they had a right to surf the beach.
"We weren't trying to be martyrs, and we ended up being martyrs," said 23-year-old David Pringle, a student who also works at an Oakland-based legal services company.
After being warned off the property by a caretaker, the quintet continued on to the waves. As they waited in the lineup, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office closed in.
Options briefly were considered, but there weren't many, considering there's only one way in and out of Martin's Beach. The five exited the water, where they were read their Miranda rights, fingerprinted, photographed and given arrest citations for trespassing.
<p class="subhead">SURFING DISSIDENTS
<p class="bodytext">And so, just as Santa Cruz's Coldwater Classic is under way and the window on the legendary contest at Maverick's is set to open, the five made their own kind of history -- they are the first people busted for surfing Martin's Beach.
They have since posted a picture of the arrest on a Martin's Beach Facebook page, and Bremer said he has video of that day. They argue that trespassing to the beach is not a crime. In other words, they became surfing dissidents.
"We weren't really thinking the police were going to come" Pringle said. "We just wanted to see what the vibe was going to be like. We wanted to test the water, no pun intended.
"I think there should be some way to get down to that sandy cove down there. There's no other way around it. It seems really deliberate -- the guy just seems to want to keep everyone off that beach," he added.
Their plight has even caught the attention of the Surfrider Foundation. They are due for a Dec. 19 arraignment, and the advocacy group wants to stand behind them.
"The Surfrider Foundation is looking to help defend them in their case," said Angela Howe, legal director for the group. "We'll probably have a bunch of surfers go to that meeting."
Under the state's Coastal Act, the entirety of the state's 1,100 miles of coastline belongs to the public. The law even has a clause preserving the public's right to access beaches by crossing over private land, though those rights do not apply in all situations.
<p class="subhead">PRIVATE SALE
<p class="bodytext">In 2008, the property surrounding Martin's Beach, on which a small neighborhood is situated, was purchased for $37.5 million by a limited-liability corporation believed to be controlled by Venod Kholsa, a Sun Microsystems co-founder and venture capitalist routinely ranked among the world's richest people.
Kholsa's plans for the property are not clear, but not long after buying it the long-standing public access to the beach via the only road in, which is private and gated to keep cars out, was shut off.
Protests ensued. Locals had enjoyed Martin's Beach for decades, and the Coastal Act seems to protect customary or traditional routes to public beaches. The Coastal Commission has said it is investigating the situation, and while it hasn't taken any action, the outcome could influence future coastal access rules.
A call to a lawyer for Martin's Beach LLC was not returned.
This week, Scotts Valley attorney Gary Redenbacher got tired of waiting. He filed in San Mateo County Superior Court to open up the beach, and referenced the five surfers in the suit. He is asking a judge to rule that the public does have the right to cross Martin's Beach Road.
Several others support that position. San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, a former county sheriff, used to take his family there.
"I've always been very clear with them that I think there should be public access," Horsley said, adding that he's willing to work with the landowner on what that looks like.
For Bremer, the whole thing still seems absurd.
"I think it's unreasonable that somebody can buy all of the accessible property around a public beach and essentially privatize it," Bremer said. "Whether or not you get a team of lawyers into the wording (of the Coastal Act), everything that's there is designed to protect public access to beaches."
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