Attempt to close coastal gem sparks court battle

A lone surfer on Martin's Beach, California. Picture: Reuters
A lone surfer on Martin's Beach, California. Picture: Reuters
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MARTIN’S Beach on California’s Pacific coast is a spot long revered by surfers, anglers and sun worshippers for its beautiful soft sand and its seclusion, surrounded as it is by towering cliffs.

But now the future of this hidden gem on the San Francisco peninsula is being fought over in a courthouse 25 miles away, in a battle that has become the latest class-charged standoff involving a wealthy entrepreneur in this polarised part of the Golden State.

Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, paid $37.5 million (£22m) 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 signalling he would do what it takes to maintain his privacy.

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

Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, declined to be interviewed. 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 sensationalised to focus on populist sentiments and the 1 per cent,” he said.

California is a state with many beautiful beaches and almost as many millionaires who want their own beachfront homes, so this is not the first fight over an ocean view.

But this one takes 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 Khosla, who does not live on the property, to let people back on the beach. His opponents contend he is defying state law and the principle that “the beach ­belongs to everyone” seen as basic to many Californians.

Compelled by a judge to testify, 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 gave people access for a fee, Khosla has put up a forbidding gate, albeit a low one that can be sidestepped. While a few surfers and bathers do trespass, some have been arrested, the surfers say.

Joe Cotchett, the lawyer for the Surfrider Foundation said: “This is a case all about arrogance. Where a multibillionaire has just decided to build a castle on that beach, and the public is going to be barred.”

Another Khosla lawyer, Dori L Yob, called the case “a property right issue just like any other”. She added: “Just because where your house sits used to be a public beach doesn’t mean people can walk through your backyard while you are having breakfast.”

A walk down Martin’s Beach Road reveals about 40 weathered beach shacks, most leased until 2021, with names like Cozy Cabin and Casa Blanca. On a recent morning, there was not a person on the beach.

Many assumed Khosla bought the land intending to bulldoze the shacks and build something grander. But he testified: “I bought the beach, but I had no plan for the beach.”

His actions surprised some as he had appeared in a magazine’s environment photoshoot with Caughlan of Surfrider. He said: “I thought Khosla was going to be a good guy. When he bought the beach, I thought, ‘Oh great, an environmentalist bought that.’ And then he cut off access and we went, ‘Where did that come from?’”