The efforts to reopen the contested Martin’s Beach to the public were propelled forward Wednesday as state Sen. Jerry Hill’s legislation, aimed at upholding access to California beaches, passed the Senate floor and will head to the Assembly.
Hill’s Senate Bill 968 was approved 21 to 11 and would require the State Lands Commission to negotiate with billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who bought the coveted and secluded cove in 2008 for $37.5 million and quickly closed Martin’s Beach to the public.
Should it pass the Legislature, Khosla would have until Jan. 1, 2016, to negotiate a deal or the state could use eminent domain to acquire a portion of the property that would be used to reopen or create a new public access road off of Highway 1.
Hill’s bill is a victory for the coastal rights activists’ multi-pronged approach that includes two court cases, one of which is still pending.
“I’m very excited about it and very pleased that the Senate agreed with certainly those who reside on the coast and those who enjoy the beaches of California, and they concurred in our belief that everyone should have access to the public beaches and it was very special to get the vote,” Hill, D-San Mateo, said.
The win comes shortly after the Surfrider Foundation’s lawsuit, within the San Mateo County Superior Court, concluded testimony about two weeks ago.
Surfrider claims Khosla violated the California Coastal Act by failing to earn mandated permits before posting signs deterring the public and consequentially altered the land use. Should Surfrider prevail, Khosla would need to approach the California Coastal Commission for approval.
Attorney Joe Cotchett, who helped represent Surfrider and spent nearly two hours grilling Khosla on the stand, said Wednesday was a win for the cause and proof that money can’t override the law.
“Here’s a man who has billions of dollars and he can hire all the lawyers and lobbyists in the world, but he cannot defeat the law passed by the citizens of California. I think it’s a big win today,” Cotchett said.
The Surfrider case was the first time Khosla publicly acknowledged he owned the contested property.
On paper, Martin’s Beach is owned under the Martin’s Beach I and II, LLCs. Steven Baugher, who manages the property, allegedly hired the lobbying firm California Strategies & Advocacy to try and kill Hill’s bill.
Khosla’s attorney Jeffrey Essner did not return a request for comment.
Mike Wallace, Surfrider spokesman and a Half Moon Bay surf club coach, said he’s thrilled the wealthy and seemingly apathetic Khosla wasn’t able to buy his way through the Senate.
“I find that there’s been a lot of hiding behind LLCs, hiding behind the property manager, hiding behind lobbyists and it’s been very disingenuous that there hasn’t been an active role taken by the ownership (Khosla),” Wallace said. “It fits with everything we’ve seen so far … the general disrespect for the public and the local public here that wants to maintain access to a beach with a lot of memories tied up in that beach.”
Cotchett said he expects it could take another month or two for Judge Barbara Mallach to return her ruling in the Surfrider case. Yet Cotchett said he’s confident she will rule in favor of upholding the laws that govern the California coast.
“We’re delighted with Jerry Hill’s bill, the vote shows the overwhelming support of the people of California for access to their coastline. And we’re delighted that the Senate voted that way,” Cotchett said. “(Yet,) I don’t know that the legislation will be necessary in the long run because I think the courts will rule he has to go to the Coastal Commission and, when that happens, I believe the Coastal Commission will say that the public should have access.”
Martin’s Beach was fueled into the national spotlight after a group of five surfers were arrested for trespassing in October 2012. Although those charges were later dropped, a group called the Friends of Martin’s Beach sprung to action filing a suit alleging Khosla violated the state’s constitution. That case ruled in favor of Khosla as it hinged on the property originating from a centuries old Mexican land grant, which was confirmed by a federal patent and the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1800s.
Before passing on the Senate floor, SB 968 passed the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Judiciary Committee. Hill said he plans on asking Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, to introduce his bill into the Assembly as early as next week. Hill said he expects the Martin’s Beach bill to be heard by the same committees within the Assembly.
“I’m hoping he spent a lot of money up here (Sacramento) in the last week to try and kill this bill unsuccessfully,” Hill said. “And to me that’s a good omen, it’s showing that money cannot buy a public beach and it can’t buy the Legislature. But I think the goal of this bill is to negotiate a settlement.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106