Surfers Challenge Tech Billionaire
Trial in the lawsuit filed by Surfrider Foundation against Venture Capitalist Vinod Khosla is seeking to enforce the public’s right of access to Martin’s Beach started on Thursday.
The dispute revolves around Mr. Khosla’s decision to lock a gate on his property that connects Martin’s Beach to California Highway 1, effectively cutting off the public’s access to the beach. Khosla also hired new security guards for his property.
Khosla purchased the property adjacent to the beach for $37.5 million in 2008 from the Deeney family, who had previously ran the location as a business, charging the public $10 to park near the beach.
Although Khosla does not own Martin’s Beach, the stretch of land he owns includes the only public access road to the surfing hotspot.
This is the second lawsuit that aims to reopen Martin’s Beach to the public. In 2012, Friends of Martin’s Beach sued to reopen the beach to the public, citing a clause in the California Constitution on the public’s right of access to the coast. Last October, Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald ruled against the surfers; his decision includes the citation of a proviso in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—signed in 1848—that makes Khosla’s beachside property exempt from the clause.
Eric Buescher, an attorney at Cotchett, Pitre, & McCarthy and outside counsel for the Surfrider Foundation, explained in an email interview that the October ruling has no bearing on today’s trial.
“Judge Buchwald was ruling on whether the public had obtained any ownership interest in the property or a constitutional right to cross the property. This Court is being asked to consider whether the defendants engaged in “development” under the California Coastal Act,” he wrote.
Under the Act, “development” requires the procurement of a Coastal Development Permit, which Khosla has not obtained. Surfrider argues that the changes Khosla made to his property caused a “change in intensity of use of water, or of access thereto” and therefore constitutes “development.”
The defense claims that the area surrounding the beach has become dilapidated and poses a risk to the public. They argue that keeping it open would create liabilities for the owner if someone gets injured on the property.
“It becomes apparent on visiting the property that the historic parking areas naturally washed away with natural erosion and a rising tide, which cannot be reconstituted,” the defense wrote in a motion filed on Monday, requesting the judge and jury to personally visit and inspect the property surrounding Martin’s Beach.
They also argue that the property falls under the category of “agricultural land” and thus does not require a Coastal Development Permit.
Buescher stressed the importance that this case holds on a larger scale. If the judge rules in favor of Khosla, “it sets a dangerous precedent that other wealthy landowners throughout the state will try to follow,” he said.
Jeffrey E. Essner, lead defense counsel for Mr. Khosla, did not respond to an interview request.
Even if Khosla wins this case, the battle for Martin’s Beach is far from over. Friends of Martin’s Beach are appealing the October decision, and California State Senator Jerry Hill has introduced legislation that would restore public access to the beach via eminent domain.
Jonathan Zhou is a special correspondent in New York.