Do You Actually Control Your Property?

Scott_Sporleder_-Surfrider_Norcal_(97_of_157)Sometimes the historic activity on property from prior owners can have drastic implications on a current owner’s rights. In 2008, a billionaire investor from Silicon Valley paid $32.5 million for a large property on the Central California coast. Across the property is a road which provides the sole access to Martin’s Beach, a public beach near Half Moon Bay. Since the road runs through the property, the new owner presumed the road was his private property and tried to block it off to prevent the public from using it to access the beach. In Friends of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1 LLC, et al., however, the court ruled that the historic use of the road deprived him of the right to do so.

In 1838, when California belonged to Mexico, the property was part of a rancho. The rancho was eventually divided into smaller parcels and transferred to various people, including the Deeney family. The Deeney parcel contained the beach access road in 1899. While they owned the land, the Deeney family allowed the public to use the access road to get to the beach for several decades. The Deeneys even put up a highway billboard inviting the public to the beach, set up a general store, and built public toilets and a beach parking area. The family sold the property to the billionaire investor in 2008.

The investor initially allowed the public to use the road, parking area, and beach, all for a fee. Then, in the Fall of 2009, he closed the road, put up a locked gate to block access to the road and “No Trespassing” signs and even hired security guards to block the public from the road and the beach. After a massive social media campaign to reopen the road, the Friends of Martin’s Beach filed suit claiming, among other things, that the previous owners had made an express dedication of the road to public use which bound the new owners so that they could not stop the public from accessing the beach over the road, and the group prevailed. The owner appealed.

The Court of Appeal decision clarifies some interesting rules that may mean the average landowner may be missing a very important part of the property. California follows the concept that property ownership is a “bundle of rights” and one of the most important of those rights is the “right to exclude”—in other words, the right to tell others to get off your land. Here, the owner wanted to keep people from traipsing across his land as they went to the beach. The Appeals Court said that is a right the owner simply may not have anymore, based on the acts of the previous owners.

It should be noted that certain properties are protected from implied dedications by statute, and a big factor in this case was that coastal properties are especially exempt from those protections. There are ways, however, that owners can prevent the public from obtaining rights on private property the public regularly uses. GARCIA LEGAL has experience in assisting landowners in protecting their properties against implied dedication of their land. Taking minimal steps could prevent what happened to the owner in Martin’s Beach case.