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Lawmakers want to use eminent domain to gain public beach access

Like all coastal beaches in California, picturesque Martins Beach is public. That is because California's Coastal Act holds that all of California's coasts are a public resource.

Unfortunately, accessing Martins Beach requires using a private road. That didn't used to be a problem. Until 2008, the road's owners didn't object to the public using the road to reach the beach, and often left the gate open.

The current owner has not been so accommodating. The billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems bought the 90-acre beach adjacent property ten years ago for $32.5 million. Since then, he has argued repeatedly that he has the right to limit public access to his property even though it stands between them and a public beach. This has brought widespread censure and lawsuits. The billionaire, however, has threatened to defend his rights before the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

An easement is what is needed here. An easement is the legal right to cross or use property owned by another party. Easements are generally permanent, non-possessory property rights that can be bought, sold and transferred. Unlike simply allowing someone to use or cross your land, giving another party an easement gives them legal rights.

The billionaire has offered to sell the state an easement -- for $30 million, almost what he paid for the property. Recently, the State Lands Commission had the easement independently appraised at $360,000.

During the last state budget process, a couple of assembly members from San Mateo County managed to have $1 million put into the State Lands Commission budget for purchasing the easement through eminent domain. San Mateo County has agreed to pony up another $1 million.

That sounds promising, but litigation could derail the process. The billionaire has brought his case before California's state courts. Last year, he lost at the appellate level and was turned down by the California Supreme Court. At that point, he did file an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, that court has asked attorneys from the Surfrider Foundation to file a response to the billionaire's claim.

A Supreme Court ruling that private property rights are superior to the Coastal Act or similar state laws could be devastating. "Public access to beaches has always been a way of California life," said one assembly member.

The State Lands Commission stands ready to use eminent domain to purchase an easement to Martins Beach and other beaches, but it awaits action from the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if it has the authority.

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