Martin’s Beach is a beautiful, secluded stretch of oceanfront located just south of Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County, California.
But this idyllic beach also happens to be the setting for a heated legal battle between environmental organisation Surfrider Foundation and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who blocked public access to the beach after purchasing an 89-acre parcel there in 2008.
Khosla, who is also a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, paid $US32 million for the property, which he purchased from a local family who had owned it for more than a century. In the past, visitors to Martin’s Beach have accessed the shore from a gated road off of the Pacific Coast Highway. The family that previously owned the property charged anywhere from $US2 to $US10 for parking at the beach, which also once had a restaurant and convenience store that catered to visitors.
But now the gate that leads down to the beach is locked, with signs forbidding entry. A billboard that once advertised public access to the beach was mysteriously painted over several years ago. Though surfers longing for waves could conceivably walk around the gate, only those with the correct key code could get it to open wide enough for cars to access the parking lots below.
“It’s a family beach that was open to the community for generations,” Angela Howe, Legal Director for the Surfrider Foundation, said to Business Insider. “That’s the most egregious offence here.”
The California Coastal Act was created in 1976 to maximise public access to the state’s beaches. There are now more than 1,150 public access points on the California coast, in the form of state parks, stairways, and narrow paths.
According to Surfrider lawyers, Khosla was in violation of the California Coastal Act when he changed the nature of public access to Martin’s Beach before obtaining a permit from the California Coastal Commission. They also claim that Khosla made road and drainage improvements without the necessary permits.
Most of the arguments in the case took place in July, and a decision is expected any day now, eighteen months after the organisation first filed suit against Khosla in March 2013.
Beach access is a hot topic in a culture as tied to the ocean as California, and Martin’s Beach is a particularly beloved spot.
“It’s a little gem in the Bay Area,” Chad Nelsen, Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation, said to Business Insider. “Historically it’s been known for its ease of access and consistent waves.”
The beach has long been a well-known fishing spot and family picnic destination. It’s also popular within the surfing community — the surf team from a local high school once held their practices here, and Jeff Clark, the surfing pioneer known for discovering the giant waves now known as Mavericks, used to come here as a child.
“I learned to surf there,” Clark told the San Jose Mercury News in 2011. “My family’s been going there since the 1940s. It’s one of those places that’s part of my history.”
In 2012, in an incident that has since been made into a short film by the Surfrider Foundation, a group of five surfers were arrested for trespassing when they ignored the signs, walked down the road, and paddled out in the water.
Though the trespassing charges have since been dropped, the incident has led to litigation as well as legislative efforts.
Earlier this year, State Senator Jerry Hill proposed a bill that would help the State Lands Commission restore public access to the beach through eminent domain. That bill has been approved by the state Senate and is awaiting approval by Governor Jerry Brown.
“It really shows the popularity of the issue, that the local Senator thought it was important enough to his constituents to push this bill through the Senate,” Nelsen said.
Neither Khosla nor his lawyers Dori Yob and Jeff Essner responded to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
Khosla has spoken publicly on the issue only once, in a piece with the San Francisco Chronicle during the trial in July. He said that he tried to meet with the Commission several times, and that it was unreasonable to expect him to pay exorbitant fees to keep the beach open to the public. He claims to have paid between $US500,000 and $US600,000 a year in costs for maintenance, liability insurance, and infrastructure, among other expenses.
As a longtime investor in green technology, he added that he has no plans for the property and would never do anything to harm the environment.
“There is nothing I would do with it in the next 10 or 20 years,” he told the newspaper. “But I do want to preserve my rights as a property owner.”
Even if Surfrider does prevail in court, essentially all that means is that Khosla would have to apply for a permit through the California Coastal Commission, who would negotiate the terms of public access to the beach and the use of the gate on Khosla’s property. The court could also rule in Khosla’s favour, and there’s always the possibility of a lengthy appeals process.
“It’s unlikely that this will be the end of it,” Nelsen said. “But we’re going to see it through.”