For generations, Californians flocked to Martins Beach, a scenic stretch of shore in San Mateo. They came to fish, swim, sunbathe and surf at the beach known for a rocky, shark tooth-shaped outcrop that juts out of the water and makes for an iconic backdrop.
Then, in 2008, Silicon Valley billionaire and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (a major Rocket Lab investor) bought a huge swath of land abutting the coast, which included the only access road to the popular beach. Within a year, he decided he didn't want to share, closing a gate to the beach and painting over billboards advertising it as open to the public.
• There are more billionaires than ever, but their fortunes took a big hit in 2018
• Rocket Lab raises $206m
• Bill Gates - the billionaire who wants to pay more tax
• Premium - Billionaires have never had it so good
The move sparked a protracted battle over the public's right to the state's coastline, with the wealthy landowner on one side and ocean lovers on the other. Over the last decade, it has prompted a flurry of lawsuits and become a rallying cry for beach goers in San Mateo and beyond. At one point, the dispute led to the arrest of a group of five surfers who subsequently became known as Martin's Five.
Now the state is stepping into the fray. The California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission announced Monday it would sue to restore public access to Martins Beach. State officials view the case as potentially setting precedent for other attempts to privatize beaches, which are defined by California's Constitution as public. A landmark state law, the Coastal Act, bolsters that right by declaring that beach access is a fundamental right.
"California's coastline belongs to everyone," Lieutenant Governor and State Lands Commission Chair Eleni Kounalakis said in a prepared statement. "This lawsuit is a critical part of California's ongoing efforts to ensure public access and to protect the public's rights to access its golden shores."
In his long-running campaign to keep the public off the beach, Khosla, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, has become what the New York Times described as the beach villain of the current California era and "the sandy antagonist of the digital age." In a rare interview about the issue, he told technology reporter Nellie Bowles he bought the property on a whim and regrets it deeply.
He also hadn't spent a single night there.
Khosla claimed that he doesn't even want to win and is waging the battle on principle alone. It's his contention, the New York Times reported, that by directing him to either keep open the road and charge no more than $2 a car for parking or apply for a permit to change access, the government was forcing him to run an unprofitable parking business.
"If I were to ever win in the Supreme Court, I'd be depressed about it," Khosla said, according to the paper. "I support the Coastal Act; I don't want to weaken it by winning. But property rights are even more important."
In 2018, he seemed to have lost: an appeals court upheld a lower court decision confirming that he had to allow access or get a permit. Khosla took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear his appeal.
The nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, which had brought that lawsuit, declared victory.
"The most conservative and divided Supreme Court in my lifetime confirmed that even a billionaire, who refuses to acknowledge that the law applies to him, and retains the most expensive attorneys he can find, cannot create a private beach," lead attorney Joseph Cotchett told the Los Angeles Times. "Beaches are public in California, and the immensely wealthy must comply with the Coastal Act just like everyone else."
But then a San Mateo County appeals court sided with Khosla in a different lawsuit over the beach. The court "acknowledged the spirit of the state's coastal access law, but also said the evidence failed to show that the former owners had dedicated this use to the public," the Los Angeles Times reported.
State officials have been following the wrangling. They are joining the effort after spending several years compiling evidence showing that the public has used the beach and access road for "as far back as can be historically documented," according to the complaint filed in court this week. They cite the common law doctrine of "implied dedication."
"These new owners deny that the public has any right to set foot on the beach or on the beach access road," the complaint says. "The new owners are wrong."
An attorney for Khosla on Wednesday cited the San Mateo County decision and blasted the state's lawsuit as the latest attempt to seize his property without compensation.
"While such tactics are commonplace in communist systems," Dori Yob Kilmer said in a statement, "they have never been tolerated in the American system where the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from simply taking private property and giving it to the public."
- Washington Post