Martins Beach: Surfers tell Supreme Court billionaire Vinod Khosla has no right to block public from shoreline

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Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla knew California’s laws when he bought property on the San Mateo County coastline 10 years ago, and he shouldn’t be allowed to block public access to the beach now, after families have visited it for nearly 100 years.

That’s the core argument that surfers are making in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court this week as part of a case that could potentially rewrite California’s laws guaranteeing public access to beaches if the Supreme Court takes up the case this fall and rules in Khosla’s favor.

On Wednesday afternoon, attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to keep beaches open to the public and improve ocean health, filed a brief with U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that claims Khosla made in his appeal to the high court earlier this year alleging violation of his private property rights are “off base.”

In the 32-page document, the Surfrider attorneys argued that the justices should not take up the case, which Khosla has lost in lower courts and which California’s State Supreme Court refused to consider.

Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, knew that for generations the public had used the road that runs through the property he purchased south of Half Moon Bay in 2008. Before he purchased the land, the lawyers said in the brief, he was told by San Mateo County officials that he could not shut off that access without a permit from the California Coastal Commission. The road is the only land route to the beach, which is surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs.

Most important, they noted, Khosla’s claims that the state is taking his private property are hollow because he has never even applied to the coastal commission for a permit under the California Coastal Act to lock the gate to the beach — and that’s a requirement under the landmark law any time property owners try to change public access to a beach, the lawyers argued. Khosla has noted that the previous owners of the land, the Deeney family, often charged visitors to park, and if he can’t lock the gate, he is being required to operate a business against his wishes.

“This is not about a land owner being forced to run a business by an oppressive government,” said Joe Cotchett, a Burlingame attorney representing the Surfrider Foundation. “It is about a billionaire who refuses to acknowledge that the law applies to him, attempting to create a private beach through great wealth. But beaches are public in California.”

Khosla, 63, has lost in trial court and state appeals court. He contends that he continues to fight the battle over issues of basic fairness.

“I feel coerced and extorted,” he wrote in a blog post in May, adding: “The Martin’s Beach dispute has been a painful episode for me personally. I may be post-financial but am not post-facts. I have prided myself on always doing the right thing and living a caring principled life, always legal but beyond that ethical and fair, no matter how popular or unpopular my stances are.”

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla arrives at San Mateo County Superior Courthouse Monday afternoon May 12, 2014, in Redwood City, Calif. Khosla was called to testify about his refusal to open public access to a stretch of beach along the San Mateo County coastline. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla arrives at San Mateo County Superior Courthouse Monday afternoon May 12, 2014, in Redwood City, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Khosla argues that he should not be required to get a permit from the Coastal Commission to lock a gate. But section 30106 of the California Coastal Act requires that property owners must obtain a permit not only when they want to build a home or business on the coast but also for “change in the intensity of use of water, or of access.”

When Khosla appealed the case in February to the U.S. Supreme Court, he hired Paul Clement, a well-regarded attorney. In his appeal, Khosla described the Coastal Act as “Orwellian” for requiring property owners to obtain permits when they want to build homes or businesses along the California coastline.

“To me, the Martin’s Beach dispute, however unpopular and damaging, is about principles, of not being extorted or coerced into giving up property rights, a tactic many coastal property owners have detailed for me as routine practice by the Coastal Commission,” he wrote.

In a rare interview last month with KPIX TV during a business conference in San Francisco, Khosla was asked if it bothered him that his case could give the conservative-leaning court a way to set a precedent that limits public access to all beaches in California.

“It absolutely bothers me, but we need a coastal commission that works with property owners to follow the law,” he said, adding, “I’d rather do the harder right thing than the easier wrong thing.”

In July 2008, Khosla bought the Martins Beach property for $32.5 million. By September 2009, he had locked a gate that provided public access to the shoreline. He posted guards, put up a “Beach Closed” sign and set off a furious controversy. The Surfrider Foundation sued Khosla in 2013. After Khosla lost in San Mateo County Superior Court, he appealed.

The road to Martins Beach remains locked, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, on an overcast day south of Half Moon Bay, California. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
The road to Martins Beach was locked, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, on an overcast day south of Half Moon Bay, California. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

But last year, the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3-0 that he violated the California Coastal Act by not getting a permit to close the gate and ordered him to open it immediately. The San Mateo County sheriff’s office said it would not arrest anyone for trespassing if they used the road to access the beach, and Khosla has kept the gate open most days while he has continued to fight the case. The state Supreme Court refused to hear Khosla’s appeal, leading to his appeal to the nation’s highest court in February.

The California Coastal Commission is working on an enforcement case against the tech venture capitalist that could result in millions of dollars in fines. And open-beach advocates say the case has ramifications all over the state and the nation as wealthy people try to block the public from the shoreline.

“The reason that access to Martins Beach is important is the same reason that access to Yosemite is important,” said Rob Caughlan, former president of Surfrider and a longtime surfer at Martins Beach. “Martins Beach is a California treasure.”

The road to Martins Beach is empty,Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, on an overcast day near Half Moon Bay, California. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Martins Beach (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Article source: Supreme Court

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