Supreme Court leaves verdict against tech mogul Khosla intact

The court declined to review the matter of whether the tech mogul could upturn decisions that allowed the people to access a public beach he had blocked off

 

Ritu Jha

 

“It’s an enormous victory not just for Martins Beach but for the entire California coastline and also coastlines throughout the United States.”

That was the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit that won a fight against tech mogul Vinod Khosla over the right to have public access to Martins Beach that he closed.

Mark Massara at Martin’s beach.

October 1, the US Supreme Court declined to review the case of the Friends of Martin Beach v Martins Beach LLC, thus leaving in place earlier decisions in California courts.

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 in California from one Rich Deeney for $37.5 million in 2008.

The 90 acres of land located near Half Moon Bay, also called Martins Beach, has 50 cabins. A single private road leads to the beach that is mainly used by the people living in the cabins but also by the public. People from across Northern California used the beach even after Khosla bought the property.

 

But a year later he closed the gate that gave access to the beach, infuriating members of the Surfrider Foundation. The Coastal Commission also weighed in because he had not applied for a permit in this regard.

A series of court battles wound their way from the San Mateo Superior Court to the Supreme Court. This February, Khosla filed a petition 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.

“He has lost in every step along the way, and this (denial) was the final nail in the coffin today. There is nothing else he can do legally,” Mark Massara, attorney for the Surfrider Foundation and another group, the Friends of Martins Beach told indica.

The only thing he can do if he wants to close the beach. He has to file a permit application with the California Coastal Commission.

The Coastal Commissions has said he never applied for permission to close the public access. Last year it imposed a fine of $11,250 each day on Khosla for violating several provisions of the Coastal Act.

Massara said Khosla faces millions in fines and penalties. If he wants to continue to close a beach, he needs a permitm he said.

Khosla knew the outcome of the petition, and in an interview to The New York Times, said, “A billionaire is a bad word in this country now…And that pains me.”

He wants to sell the property, he told the Times.

“I mean, look, to be honest, I do wish I’d never bought the property… In the end, I’m going to end up selling it.”

He told the Times, he does not even want to triumph. “If I were to ever win in the Supreme Court, I’d be depressed about it,” he says. “I support the Coastal Act; I don’t want to weaken it by winning. But property rights are even more important.”

He does not want the beach at all, really. He does not swim. For fun, he hikes.

Masara reacting to his plan to sell the property said his $37 million, it’s a worth less now, because of the legal outcome.

“No one is going to buy this property, there is only one buyer and that is the State of California, “said Mascara. “In fact, he owns us ten millions of dollars in civil fines and penalties.”

 

“So it’s time to negotiate. We should be negotiating no cash deal, where fines and penalty are partially forgiven and the property is transferred to the State of California Department of State Park, it’s a public beach.

 

If he does not make a permit request and the beach remains open then the question is how much in fines will he pay.

Massara said now the beach opens and closes at arbitrary times, then added that Khosla “doesn’t have a permit to do anything. He can’t close the beach that is for sure. Massara again repeated , “He needs to negotiate whether it’s getting the permit or selling the property. He thought like startup, he would take this piece of property and make it much more valuable. But instead he made it less valuable.”

Massara believes that Khosla must have done his homework before buying the property.

“I think he did, but he was listening to lawyers who were advising him that he could privatize a public beach. And that’s a dramatic mistake,” Massara said.

Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement, for the California Coastal Commission on the Supreme Court’s decision said this in a statement:

Every level of court, including now the US Supreme Court, has upheld the Coastal Act’s protection of the public’s rights to access the California coast.  This case reaffirms that one cannot make a unilateral decision to shut down a beach that has provided generations of families with memories. We will be considering how to proceed and hope the owner  will work with us to assure that the historical public access to Martin’s Beach remains available for present and future generations

Back in August, Khosla had told the Times, “If this hadn’t ever started, I’d be so happy. But once you’re there in principle, you can’t give up principle… I’d rather do the right hard things now that I’m in than the wrong easy things.”

In this case, that did not work out for him

 

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