It’s Privacy vs. the People in the Battle for Martin’s Beach

June 15, 2014
New York Times

The Pacific Ocean glistens in the distance, past the rolling bluffs that rise beyond the electric gate that blocks off Martin’s Beach Road. The road leads to Martin’s Beach, once a revered hideaway for surfers, fishers and beachgoers drawn by its isolation, dramatic cliffs and sweep of soft sand.

But these days, the future of this hidden beach on the San Francisco Peninsula is being fought in a courthouse 25 miles away, in a battle that has become the latest class-charged standoff involving a wealthy entrepreneur in this polarized part of California. Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, paid $37.5 million in 2008 for a 53-acre parcel of ocean land that includes the beach and the road — and proceeded to close the gate, posting armed guards and signaling that he was prepared to spend what it takes to keep the public off what he contends is private land.

“People are saying, ‘Talk about entitlement: Rich people think they can get away with anything,’ ” said Rob Caughlan, the former president of theSurfrider Foundation, the nonprofit organization that brought the suit. “All we want is to get Khosla to follow the same law as everyone else does.”

Mr. Khosla, who is best known as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, declined a request for an interview. One of his lawyers, Jeffrey Essner, said the have-and-have-not argument had hijacked, at least in public perception, what he described as a cut-and-dried case about private property rights. “It’s being sensationalized in the media to focus on populist sentiments and the 1 percent,” he said.

California is a state with many beautiful beaches and almost as many millionaires who want their own beachfront homes, and this is hardly the first fight to be fought over an ocean view. But by every measure, this one has taken on added resonance, taking place against the backdrop of tensions in San Francisco caused by the influx of high-paid Silicon Valley executives and embodied by the Google buses that take them to work each day.

The lawsuit being fought at the San Mateo County Courthouse — a decision is expected in the summer — signals the latest stage in a five-year flurry of litigation, protests, civil disobedience, indignation and arrests, aimed at forcing Mr. Khosla, who does not live on the property, to let people back on the beach (which is variously called Martin’s Beach and Martins Beach). His opponents contend he is defying the State Constitution, state law and the mind-set of “the beach belongs to everyone” that is fundamental to many Californians.

Compelled by a judge to testify, Mr. Khosla said on the stand: “If you’re asking me why any gate is locked, it’s to restrict public access. That’s a general statement about gates.”

While the previous owner of Martin’s Beach gave people access to the beach for a fee, Mr. Khosla has put up a forbidding gate, albeit a low one that can be sidestepped. While a few surfers and bathers do trespass and use the beach, some have been arrested, the surfers say, though fewer recently as the dispute has heated up.

The fight has moved to Sacramento as well. Last month, the California Senate approved a bill that would permit the state to use the power of eminent domain to seize enough land to provide a public passageway to the beach. Next, the bill will be considered by the Assembly, where it faces an uncertain future. “The coast is protected, and when somebody does something that’s going to affect that, there’s going to be a reaction — and a strong one,” said the sponsor of the bill, Jerry Hill, a Democratic state senator from San Mateo.

An earlier court challenge to Mr. Khosla failed when a San Mateo judge ruled that the Constitution, which declares that all property below the mean tide line is public, and a 1976 law mandating that property owners provide access to these beaches were superseded by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty ended the Mexican-American War by requiring that the United States recognize Mexican land grants, including one that awarded rights to this plot well before the Constitution was adopted.

This latest case is in some ways more narrow: The Surfrider Foundation contends that under the Coastal Act of 1976, Mr. Khosla was required to obtain a permit from the California Coastal Commission before he blocked access to the beach.

“This is not a rocket-science case,” said Joe Cotchett, the lawyer representing the Surfrider Foundation. “This is a case all about arrogance. This is a case where a multibillionaire — not a millionaire, a billionaire — has just decided to build a castle on that beach, and the public is going to be barred.”... (To read the entire article, please click HERE)