Court Of Appeal Holds That, While The California Constitution Does Not Guarantee A Right of Access To Martin's Beach, The Public May Have An Access Right Under The Theory Of Common Law Public Dedication.

By Glen Hansen

Friends Of Martin's Beach v. Martin's Beach 1, LLC (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 1312

In a dispute between a plaintiff unincorporated association asserting public rights and defendant property owners over the use of a road, parking area and the inland dry sand of a popular beach that were owned by defendants, the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District in Friends Of Martin’s Beach v. Martin’s Beach 1, LLC (2016) 246 Cal.App.4th 1312, 2016 Cal.App.LEXIS 341, held: (1) that the trial court properly granted summary adjudication as to plaintiff’s claim that Article X, section 4, of the California Constitution, confers on the public a right of access over private property to tidelands; and (2) that the trial court erred in granting summary adjudication as to plaintiff’s claim that, under the theory of common law dedication, the owner’s predecessors dedicated such access to the public through their words and acts, and that the public accepted that offer by using those parts of defendants’ property.

The Martin’s Beach case involved two parcels of land bounded on the east by Highway 1 and on the west by the Pacific Ocean (“Property”). At the western edge of the Property is a crescent-shaped strip of land known as “Martin’s Beach.” The only land access to Martin’s Beach is via a road that runs across the Property from Highway 1 to the beach. The Property was once part of a larger tract of land that was provisionally granted by the Mexican Governor of California in 1838 (“Rancho”).  The grant was not finalized by the time war broke out between Mexico and the United States in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war, and in 1851, Congress passed legislation to implement the Treaty. The 1851 Act established the process to address pre-war land claims.  Claims that were confirmed in those proceedings resulted in a federal patent, which is the equivalent of a deed from the federal government conveying fee simple ownership.  A patent claim for the Rancho was eventually confirmed in such patent proceedings, and by the United States Supreme Court on appeal.  Over time, the Rancho was divided into smaller parcels, including the Property, and conveyed to various persons. 

The Property was eventually acquired by the Deeney family.  The Complaint in this case alleged that, from the 1930s or earlier, the Deeney family invited the public to use the beach and the road to the beach both by words and conduct, specifically by posting a large billboard on the highway inviting the public to come to the beach by way of the road, by “welcom[ing] all ‘with open arms,’” and by constructing public toilets, a parking area and a convenience store catering to those who visited the beach.  For some of that time they charged a 25ȼ parking fee.  The Complaint also alleged: “Postcards from the ‘50s show hundreds of people enjoying idyllic days at a beach that at times had the feel of a Mediterranean escape.” “In more recent years, surfers, in particular, enjoyed what the website Surfpulse refers to as a ‘mystical and multi-faceted playground’ and what Save the Waves’ program director called ‘a natural theme park with sand.’”  The Deeney family sold the Property to defendants Martin’s Beach 1, LLC and Martin’s Beach 2, LLC (“Owners”) in 2008.  In 2009, the Owners locked a gate barring the entrance to the road, placed “No Trespassing” signs there and otherwise prevented the public from using the road or the beach.

Plaintiff Friends of Martin’s Beach, an unincorporated association (“Plaintiff”), filed a complaint against the Owners “on behalf of the general public,” citing numerous legal theories and causes of action in order to assert “nonexclusive rights and interests acquired by the general public in the beach to high tide at Martin’s Beach, the dry sand inland, an inland area historically used for parking and access along Martin’s Beach Road.”  In response to the parties’ cross-motions for summary adjudication, the trial court ruled in favor of Owners on all of the public access issues.  Plaintiff appealed.  The Court of Appeal affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case to the trial court on the public dedication claim. 

Plaintiff’s Constitutional Claims For Public Access

Plaintiff argued that Article X, section 4, which was adopted by the People as part of the Constitution of 1879, entitled the public to an easement to use the road across the Property for the purpose of gaining access to the tidelands.  That section 4 provides:

 

No individual, partnership, or corporation, claiming or possessing the frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water in this State shall be permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose, nor to destroy or obstruct the free navigation of such water; and the Legislature shall enact such laws as will give the most liberal construction to this provision, so that access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable for the people thereof. 

However, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that, whatever public rights exist under section 4 (that issue was not decided), do not override the federal land patent title in the Owner in light of Summa Corp. ex rel. Lands Commission v. California (1984) 466 U.S. 198.   In Summa, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the State of California acquired no public trust interest in lands to which title was confirmed under the federal Act of 1851 patent process based on a Mexican land grant, unless such interest was asserted by the State in the patent proceedings.  Here, Plaintiff's cause of action based on section 4 was barred under Summa because California did not acquire a public interest in the Property.  That was so because the State did not assert any such interest during the patent proceedings for the Rancho in the 1850s.  In response to Plaintiff’s attempts to distinguish Summa, the Court further held (1) that the provisional nature of the Mexican land grant for the Rancho did not alter the conclusive application of Summa; (2) that section 4 is, at least in part, a codification of the public trust doctrine; and (3) that section 4 is not a mere regulation of an “incident of ownership.”  Thus, Plaintiff’s constitutional claim based on section 4 was barred under Summa.  The Court also explicitly rejected Plaintiff’s alternative argument that section 4 is retroactive and burdens lands held in private ownership before its enactment. Not surprisingly, counsel for the owner called the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the section 4 claim, which ruling rejected the idea of a guaranteed right of beach access under the California Constitution, “a win for our client and for all coastal property owners.”

Plaintiff’s Common Law Dedication Claim For Public Access

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in granting summary adjudication as to Plaintiff’s common law dedication claim.  A common law dedication is a “grant and a gift” of land or an interest in land to the public for a public use.  A claim for dedication has two elements: “intention to dedicate by the owner, and acceptance by the public.” To constitute a dedication at common law no particular formality of either word or act is required. All that is necessary is sufficient evidence that the property owner either expressly or impliedly manifested an unequivocal intention to offer the property for a public purpose and that there was an acceptance of the offer by the public. Such intent may be demonstrated in any conceivable way that a person’s intention can be shown.  Similarly, the acceptance element may be formal, as by resolution or ordinance, or by use.  Here, the Court rejected the Owner’s singular focus on the “express” dedication label that was used in Plaintiff’s Complaint. The elements are the same for either an implied or an express dedication; the only difference is in the mode of proof of the intent element. Contrary to the Owners’ argument, the “intent to dedicate” element in an express dedication may be established by words or overt conduct of an owner other than a grant deed to a public agency or similar formal writing.  Also contrary to the Owners’ argument, an express dedication does not need to be accepted in a formal way or by a public entity. Here, the Court of Appeal held that “there can be little doubt that the facts [Plaintiff] alleged are sufficient to establish the elements of common law dedication, if they can be proven at trial. The complaint alleged a number of acts on the part of the owners that could manifest an intent to dedicate to the public, coupled with public use over many decades that could establish acceptance.” 

Furthermore, it was error for the trial court to conclude, as a matter of law, that the fact that the Deeneys “at some point charged a fee” to the public negated any intent to dedicate.  Evidence of such permissive use may tend to show the owner intended to control or qualify other parties’ access to the property and thereby rebut a finding of dedicative intent.  But that was a triable issue of fact.  Also, the Court held that the trial court erred when it inferred that the Deeneys’ commercial purpose for inviting the public to use the road and beach negated the intent to dedicate the road or beach, as a matter of law.  In fact, such commercial purpose may support a finding of intent to dedicate.

Accordingly, the Court held that Plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to state a common law dedication claim, and the Owners failed to show, as a matter of law, that they are entitled to judgment on this cause of action. The Court remanded the case to the trial court to adjudicate Plaintiff’s common law public dedication claim.  After the Court of Appeal opinion was issued, counsel for Plaintiff stated the ruling “gave us a road map to how to win at trial.”  However, that remains to be seen in this very public lawsuit.

Glen Hansen is a Senior Counsel at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

 

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