Public Access to All California Beaches May Become Reality

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill into law empowering the California Coastal Commission to fine property owners who illegally block beach access to the public.

The Oakland Tribune reported Saturday that the commission has been without the authority to levy fines since its creation in 1976. The commission's new powers come amid a legal tussle between Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla and environmentalists over Khosla's closing public access to Martins Beach in San Mateo County. A judge is deciding whether Khosla, who bought a secluded cove south of Half Moon Bay for $37.5 million in 2008, is allowed to close an access road to the beach.

The commission isn't involved in the San Mateo legal dispute, but it can now fine Khosla if it concluded he acted improperly. Khosla attorney Jeffrey Essner didn't respond to phone and email inquiries.

NBC Bay Area Political Analyst Larry Gerston said the new law changes a key dynamic in the state.

"The commission can now drag someone to court, have them explain or defend why they have blocked access to the coast, and if the judge finds that person has violated the rules of the coastal commission, that’s when he or she can be fined," he said.

The commission is responsible for protecting the state's coastline. Until now, it collected money only through taking violators to court.

The new bill was included part a $108 billion state budget package.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, carried the bill, which narrowly failed last year. The new bill is narrower than Atkins original proposal. The commission can only fine landowners who block access. It still must go to court to seek penalties for any other violations, such as damaging wetlands or building without permits.

"This is a good outcome, I'm pleased about it,'' Atkins said. ``We got lots of feedback and support from our regular Californians, and I feel pretty comfortable that I haven't gone out on a limb.''

For decades, wealthy owners in Malibu and SoCal have denied access to beaches by putting up benches or gates.

Gerston said the tide is changing.

"The enforcement divisions lies with the fact that the commission has the tool to fine someone. It never had that tool before," he said. "So before it could say, 'We think you are doing something wrong', they would get into a long protracted court argument. The judge would throw their hands up and say there’s no clarity here. All that’s gone now."

The Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a politically conservative think tank, objected to the new law.

Foundation lawyer Damien Schiff said he was concerned the commission will ask for more authority.

"Now we just have to wait and see how the commission will use this power,'' he added. "And I would not be surprised if the commission ultimately asks for an expansion of this power.''

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is carrying another bill that he hopes resolves the dispute over beach access in San Mateo. Hill's bill would require the State Lands Commission to negotiate with Khosla for a right-of-way across his property. If that fails, the Lands Commission would be authorized to seize a right-of-way to provide beach access. The Senate passed Hill's bill in May on a 22-11, and the Assembly Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear it Tuesday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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