Battle of the beach

A hidden treasure along the San Mateo coast, the beach itself comprises two shallow coves of beautiful sand divided by a narrow spit of tidepools punctuated by a tall rock. Photo by Ron Erskine.
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Long before Martin’s Beach was a battleground pitting a landowner’s purported property rights against the peoples’ right to coastal access, it was simply a destination for surfers and beachgoers.

I knew of Martin’s Beach before it became a regular news item, but I had never been there. The Committee for Green Foothills, one of the environmental groups leading the fight for open public access, recently hosted a Martin’s Beach cleanup day. I grabbed the chance to visit the beach and tidy the place up.

I parked by the side of Highway One at the corner of Martin’s Beach Road seven miles south of Half Moon Bay. Soon after I had passed the gate at the top of the quarter-mile road down to the beach, I realized there was much more to Martin’s Beach than I imagined. Halfway down, I had a fine view of the blue Pacific, but it was over the top of dozens of rooftops.

Early in the 1900s, the Watts family, under a lease from the property owners, opened the beach to the public in exchange for a parking fee. Over the years, people built beach homes there under a lease arrangement. Today, about 40 homes are tucked into the first of the two coves that compose Martin’s Beach. Some are cute beach bungalows, but many are run-down shanties.

In 2008, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla purchased 89 acres that included Martin’s Beach. Two years later, he locked the gate, igniting protests, claims, and counterclaims that led to a gnarled web of lawsuits. The matter is complex and unresolved. As things stand, the gate to Martin’s Beach is generally closed, but at the moment, people are free to visit.

The beach itself comprises two shallow coves of beautiful sand divided by a narrow spit of tidepools punctuated by a tall and sharply pointed cone of rock. North and south of the beach, impressive sheer and overhanging cliffs emphatically quell any notion of a long beach ramble.

Before our cleanup chores, speakers from Surfrider Foundation and Committee for Green Foothills told of the long history of access and details of the current fight to maintain it. Lennie Roberts pointed out that the breakwater of large rocks that Khosla installed along the beach without a permit will eventually cause the beach to disappear. She also said that when Martin’s Beach gate is open, it is one of the few places along the San Mateo coast where children and the disabled have close access to the beach.

While the heyday of Martin’s Beach has passed, the stories of the many people who grew up visiting this place are compelling: childhood summer memories, high school dates, spouses meeting for the first time. Looking at the boarded-up snack shack, you can almost hear the clamor of voices from its days as a long gone summer hubbub. Whether you come to make a statement for public access or just to catch some rays, on your next visit to Half Moon Bay, take the short side trip to Martin’s Beach.

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