The Super Bowl of beach access cases

San Jose Mercury News

Whatever else you can say about attorney Joe Cotchett -- and I last covered him 30 years ago in a trial involving the NFL and the Raiders -- he has two superb attributes in a courtroom.

The first is that he has a booming, resonant voice. It's impossible to fall asleep during a Cotchett argument, however warm the courtroom or inviting the chair.

The second is that he has a way of summarizing a case in simple stark terms. And that's just what he did Wednesday morning in the case of Martins Beach and its owner, Vinod Khosla.

"Everybody knows where this case is headed," Cotchett said before San Mateo County Judge Barbara Mallach. "The attack is going to be on the Coastal Commission as an unconstitutional taking of property. This is not the last courtroom this will be heard in."

Cotchett's client, the Surfrider Foundation, has sued Khosla, a venture capitalist who crafted a reputation as an environmentalist, for closing access to the San Mateo County beach.

An argument like this can quickly sink in the quicksand of legalisms: What constitutes "development" under case law? Does the right of public access apply to private property? Lawyers get excited by these questions.

The tall, silver-haired Cotchett, however, is not just a lawyer: He's an advocate, with his own keen sense of the politics of a big case.

And so he borrowed from Ronald Reagan's famous admonition to Mikhail Gorbachev about the Berlin Wall: "Take off that lock, Mr. Khosla," he said. "If you don't, you're going to pay a fine."

I'm with the Surfrider Foundation: I wrote a column back in 2011 urging that Khosla restore public access to the beach, which has drawn generations of families for fishing and surfing.

The argument, however, continues: Never have I been so convinced that a local case, argued in the tight confines of a Redwood City courtroom, is headed for the highest courts -- the California Supreme Court and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.

Until now, California's courts have generally taken the side of the Coastal Commission against private property owners in disputes over beach access. But there is every indication that Khosla has the means and the inclination to take this much farther.

Certainly both arguments Wednesday morning were superb. Arguing for the Surfrider Foundation, attorney Eric Buescher assailed Khosla for not seeking a permit from the Coastal Commission to close off the beach.

Citing an earlier Superior Court decision sympathetic to public access, Buescher said, "This is like saying you complied with the tax code by refusing to pay your taxes and waiting to be audited by the IRS."... (To read the entire article, please click HERE)

Jump to Page

By using this site, you agree to our updated Privacy Policy and our Terms of Use.