In a case that garnered national attention and sparked fury in coastal activists, the billionaire Martin’s Beach landowner will once again face allegations Monday that he violated state law after he forbid public access to this crescent shape strip of coast previously open for nearly a century.
The Surfrider Foundation filed the civil lawsuit that claims venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who bought the coveted property just south of Half Moon Bay in 2008 for $37.5 million and quickly closed the only access road to the secluded beach, failed to earn development permits mandated by the California Coastal Act before posting signs to detour visitors and consequentially altered the intensity of use.
The lawsuit names Martin’s Beach LLC, of which Khosla and his wife are the only beneficiaries, as the defendant, said attorney Eric Buescher with the firm Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy, which represents Surfrider.
The trial begins in San Mateo County Superior Court Monday and although a favorable ruling would not explicitly require Khosla to reopen Martin’s Beach to the public, it would require him to seek permits for developments preventing public access and he could face millions in fines, Buescher said.
Developments along the coast, ocean or Bay, Buescher said, are highly regulated and if Khosla wanted to keep Martin’s Beach closed, he would need to apply for permits through the county or possibly the California Coastal Commission. This would give the public and officials opportunity to provide long-wanted input, he added.
“Surfrider believes very strongly that all of the citizens of the state of California should be required to comply with the same laws and rules as everyone else and that the amount of money or influence that a person has does not exempt them from following the law,” Buescher said.
The case earned notoriety after a group of surfers, now known as Martin’s 5, were cited for trespassing after entering the property to surf the local break in October 2012. Those charges were quickly dropped but environmental and surf activists rose to action demanding public right-of-way supersede the rights of coastal private property owners.
Concurrent attempts to reopen the beach include legislation proposed by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and a more accusatory case filed by the Friends of Martin’s Beach citing closure of the road violated the state’s Constitution.
That case was shot down last year and the judge’s written ruling filed Wednesday, said Jeffrey Essner, the attorney representing Martin’s Beach LLC. Essner said he believes that case and San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald’s findings set a precedence.
“[Buchwald] ruled as a matter of law, that there is no public right of access to Martin’s Beach,” Essner said. “I certainly think it should, if there’s no public right of access, I think it’ll significantly impact the Surfrider litigation.”
That case hinged on the property originating from a Mexican land grant, which was confirmed by a federal patent and the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1800s, Essner said. Therefore, Martin’s Beach never came within California’s domain and the public’s claim of state constitutional rights mute, Essner said.
Essner said he would not comment on the pending Surfrider litigation.
Rob Caughlan, former president of Surfrider in the 1980s, said the organization was formed to protect against cases like Martin’s Beach. The Friends’ case shouldn’t have an impact on this trial as it’s simply about failing to acquire development permits. It’s a shame it’s gone this far, Caughlan said, as Khosla was aware public beach access was expected to remain.
“[Khosla] knew that before he bought the property. He talked to coastal officials, he talked to the county; they both said ‘you’re going to need a permit.’ I think it’s pathetic we’re having to go through all this work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal bills [are] going into this,” Caughlan said.
Filed March 2013, Buescher said he expects Surfrider’s suit to last just three to four days. As a bench trial, there will be no jury; however, up to 15 witnesses are expected to testify and Buescher said he subpoenaed Khosla, who claimed he didn’t own the property.
Mike Wallace, of the county’s Surfrider chapter, has been involved in the Martin’s Beach case and said he will be testifying. Jim Deeney, whose family used to own the beach and currently works as the on-site property manager, is expected to appear as well, Buescher said.
Prior to Khosla, the family had owned the land for more than a century and used to charge a small entry fee to the public. Although Martin’s Beach spans an estimated 200 acres between Highway 1 and the coast, it’s Khosla’s 52 acres through which the access road runs that are in question, Buescher said.
Approximately 40 small residences, most of which are vacation homes, sit on the property. Buescher said it’s his understanding that most of the renters are on long-term leases set to expire in the next five or 10 years, leaving Surfrider fearful of Khosla’s next move.
“He might use the property as a private beach playground … where for almost 100 years, members of the public and families have gathered and spent time and enjoyed California coastal resources, that will be changed to a playground for the owner,” Buescher said.
Coastal policies at play
If successful, Khosla could face fines between $1.5 million and $21.7 million to be paid into a special fund through the California Coastal Conservancy, which is overseen by the Legislature and can only be spent on coastal protection activities, Buescher said. Buescher added he plans on insisting Martin’s Beach is reopened until permits allow the land use to be altered through signs and gates prohibiting public access.
As San Mateo County is one of the first in the state to have its Local Coastal Plan certified by the Coastal Commission, Khosla may need to apply for permits through the county, Buescher said. If he’s denied, he could appeal to the Coastal Commission and both processes should provide the public with opportunities to weigh in and provide comment, Buescher said.
The case begins 9 a.m. and, if issued, proceedings would begin the same day, Buescher said.
“Part of the purpose of the Coastal Act is to protect public access to the coast and preserve the coast for everyone in the state,” Buescher said. “Development under the coastal act is defined [broadly] on purpose and the reason it is defined that way is to ensure that the developments on the coast happen in a way that’s consistent with the county’s plan, the state’s plan and the public.”
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