Tech mogul Khosla takes beach fight to Washington

The tech magnate appeals to the Supreme Court to let him deny the public access to Martins Beach

Ritu Jha


Tech mogul Vinod Khosla has taken his battle over public access to Martins Beach to the US Supreme Court.

Khosla’s lawyers filed the petition Feb. 22, asserting that this case involving Khosla’s firms and the Surfrider Foundation is about constitutional rights and that property owners had a right to keep people off their property not just in California but throughout the country.

Khosla aims to use this argument to stop people using his property to access the beach.

According to the petition, Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and founder of Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm, bought the two parcels of land adjacent to Martins Beach from one Rich Deeney for $37.5 million in 2008, under the names Martins Beach I, LLC and Martins Beach II, LLC.

The 90 acres of land located near Half Moon Bay, also called Martins Beach, has 50 cabins. And the beach is set between high cliffs to the north and south that project into the Pacific Ocean.

A single private road leads to the beach that is mainly used by the people living in the cabins and also by the public. People from across Northern California for years picnicked, barbecued, fished, surfed and otherwise enjoyed the beach. However, controversy has surrounded the beach since Khosla decided to shut public access to it.

Khosla allowed access for almost two years before closing it off and placing “No Trespassing” signs. He did this without giving notice to the California Coastal Commission, as is required. That prompted a court action by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation as well as by elected officials and the Coastal Commission. The Surfrider Foundation’s suit, filed in March 2013, charged that the billionaire’s closure of the beach gate had violated the Coastal Act of 1976, which regulates public use of the state’s beaches.

The Deeney family, which owned the property earlier, ran a private beach business, allowing patrons to use their private road to access the beach upon payment of a fee.

Khosla said he suffered a loss in the business that he took over, prompting him to shut it down and close public access to the beach.

The court concluded that the California Coastal Act requires a coastal development permit to exclude the public from a private beach. As a result, Khosla’s firms cannot exclude the public from their private property – at least until they receive a permit.

In August 2017 the California Court of Appeals ordered Khosla to open the gate, which he reluctantly did. But according to Mark Massara, attorney for the Surfrider Foundation and another group, the Friends of Martins Beach, it remains closed most of the time and there is no information provided about when people can access the beach.

“He is the king of the internet but he can’t let people know when he is going to open the gate,” Massara told indica. “It’s unfortunate, he is holding the people of California hostage.”

In Khosla’s petition, his attorney argues that the decision of the California Court of Appeals creates untenable uncertainty about the circumstances under which the government may physically invade private property without paying just compensation.

Khosla himself directed indica to his lawyers for a response, but they have yet to get back on our questions.

Commenting on the Supreme Court petition, Massara said, “The petitions read like he [Khosla] is a small innocent man who has been persecuted by the state of California. It’s a remarkable story they tell and it’s pure fantasy.”

He added that the Supreme Court will take several months to review the matter, and would likely deny the petition.

“There is nothing for the Supreme Court to decide. They [Khosla’s team] want the court to throw out the Surfrider case but in order to do that they have to rule the California Coastal program to be unconstitutional,” he said “The issues are not right because he [Khosla] has never applied for a permit. It’s a crazy case,” he said, “We will respond only when Supreme Court requests [us to]. But they won’t take this case.”

The Surfrider argument is that Khosla and his attorney knew what they are buying and met with members of both the California Coastal Commission and San Mateo County before buying the property. According to it, Khosla and his team were aware of the California coastal law but blandly chose to ignore it.

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