Awaiting Martin’s Beach decision: Attorneys give closing arguments, question constitutional property rights

July 17, 2014
San Mateo Daily Journal

Attorneys for a wealthy property owner who contend it’s his right to gate off Martin’s Beach and environmental activists seeking public access to the coast presented closing arguments in a civil case to be decided by a San Mateo County judge within two months, with some predicting the issue could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The environmental activist group Surfrider Foundation filed the civil lawsuit in March 2013 in an attempt to reopen the secluded sliver of coast just south of Half Moon Bay to the public. The case now rests in the hands of Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach who is anticipated to rule in the next 30 to 60 days.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla bought Martin’s Beach, previously open to the public for more than 100 years, in 2008 for $37.5 million and quickly closed the only access road to the public. The property became controversial as the rights of private property owners were pitted against California’s access to more than 1,000 miles of coastline.

Attorney Joe Cotchett, who represents Surfrider in its lawsuit, said although Wednesday may be the last he argues the case in the San Mateo County Superior Court, he doubts the results will end the saga to reopen the beach. The case, Cotchett said, has turned into a seminal one for private property rights and could have a broader effect on other disputes.

“I think this is the case Mr. Khosla wants to take to the Supreme Court,” Cotchett said. “[It’s a] philosophical divide between those who have and those who have not. … This case is not stopping here.”

Surfrider claims the billionaire property owner violated the California Coastal Act when he changed its land use by painting over signs and closing the only access road to the secluded beach before garnering mandated permits from the California Coastal Commission.

The respondent contends private property rights are historically protected under the Constitution and ceasing voluntary public access on private property is not considered development under the Coastal Act.

Jeffrey Essner, the attorney representing Khosla’s Martin’s Beach LLCs, said the California and United States supreme courts uphold the rights of individuals to control access to their property.

“The county, the Coastal Commission and now Surfrider by this action, and Mr. Cotchett’s demand for penalties, are forcing my client to accede his constitutional rights by extortion and give up a protected and cherished (private property) right,” Essner said. “This is forbidden by the Supreme Court and the United States Constitution.”

Surfrider maintains arguments over the constitutionality of the California Coastal Act and its assurance to maintain public access to coastal resources should be discussed in front the Coastal Commission and insist Khosla abide by the law.

Prayer for relief

On behalf of the Coastal Commission, the court can assess fines between $1,000 and $1,500 for each day someone violates the California Coastal Act. Cotchett urged fines be assessed beginning October 2010 and be paid into a special fund through the California Coastal Conservancy, which is overseen by the Legislature and can only be spent on coastal protection activities.

Cotchett said the court should penalize Khosla as he knowingly violated the Coastal Act and to ensure he follows through with applying for permits, Cotchett said.

“Somewhere, somehow, justice has to reign down on this individual, Mr. Khosla, and force him to go to the Coastal Commission and unlock that gate,” Cotchett said.

Essner argued groups like Surfrider and the Friends of Martin’s Beach, which filed a lawsuit alleging Khosla violated the state’s Constitution and was shot down last year, equate to coercion.

“The threat of an activist organization to impose tens of millions of dollars for exercising his constitutional rights is the type of extortion … the Supreme Court explicitly found unconstitutional,” Essner said... (To read the entire article, please click HERE)