Daily Journal file photo
In February, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, left, announced his legislation to reopen Martin’s Beach to the public at Martin’s Beach Road in Half Moon Bay.
Legislation aimed at reinstating public access to the contested Martin’s Beach is a step closer to arriving on the governor’s desk after narrowly being approved on the Assembly Floor Wednesday despite lobby efforts funded by the property owner.
Senate Bill 968, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would require billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who bought the coveted property in 2008 for $32.5 million, to negotiate with the State Lands Commission for public access.
After passing in the Assembly 41-24, with 14 members abstaining, the bill will head back to the Senate floor as early as Thursday for a vote because it was amended in the Natural Resources and Appropriations committees. If the bill passes prior to Aug. 31, Gov. Jerry Brown will have 12 days to sign it. If it doesn’t make it to Brown’s desk until September, he has until the end of the month to decide.
It was a narrow win, as an initial vote on the floor only produced 31 votes; but after discussing the bill further, Hill said he was able to garner 10 more supporters — the precise amount needed for it to progress.
“I want to protect access to that beautiful beach, not just for me and our generation, but for generations to come,” Hill said. “I’m really pleased and thankful for the members of the Assembly that supported the bill. Because what I found was the misinformation the lobbyists were spreading.”
The bill’s opponents argue the matter has been oversimplified, private property rights are at risk and prior to the media attention, few people visited Martin’s Beach.
Amendments in the Assembly
The bill, which easily passed the Senate in May, has been amended twice in the Assembly. It was stricken in June of its most forceful eminent domain language and now encourages, instead of requires, the SLC to utilize its authority of condemnation if a compromise with Khosla cannot be met by Jan. 1, 2016.
Although the SLC has long had the ability to acquire a right-of-way easement in the interests of public beach access, it has never done so.
On Monday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, SB 968 was essentially sliced in half, allegedly due to opponents’ concerns about a list of findings outlined in the bill.
The findings ranged from as factual as the size of the property and current law, to more subjective statements such as the recreational value of the property.
It’s likely the bill was amended due to opponents’ fears that the findings could be used in court, where Khosla currently finds himself defending two civil suits, Hill said.
“I think that the lobbyists and Mr. Khosla did not want that intent language there because they felt that it may influence their court case because it was establishing, in statute, the history and use of Martin’s Beach. Which could influence or establish a timeline or history of public access that a court might look at as a precedent,” Hill said.
Regardless, the language in the bill assuring negotiations take place stayed intact.
Currently, Khosla is facing a lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation, which alleges he violated the California Coastal Act by failing to earn mandated permits before closing the beach to the public.
After years of apparent inaction in the case, the Coastal Commission recently released a survey asking for public testimony about visits to the beach to help affirm the land was treated as though it were public for at least five years. The former property owners had opened Martin’s Beach to the public for nearly 100 years.
California Strategies’ Rusty Areias, a former coastal commissioner, was hired by Khosla to lobby against SB 968. Areias previously said he’s well versed in the public beach access rights and Martin’s Beach is not an ideal case for the SLC to use eminent domain for the first time.
“I think that those people who claim to care about coastal access and the Coastal Commission are being especially reckless, because they have chosen the wrong property, the wrong fight and the wrong person to engage in this with,” Areias previously told the Daily Journal.
Areias said the crescent shape, century of erosion and geographical challenges at the beach deterred other state agencies from purchasing the property and taking an easement is inconsistent with the state’s prior involvement. Areias said when the previous property owners decided to sell Martin’s Beach, he approached California State Parks, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the Nature Conservancy, but they all turned it down.
Khosla and his attorney have argued the Coastal Commission, San Mateo County Planning and Building Division and Surfrider are extorting him into reopening the property and running it as a business at a financial loss.
Hill contends Areias, Khosla’s attorney, and Liz Figueroa, a current Martin’s Beach resident and former senator, have been fighting against the bill with selfish interests. Hill said opponents of SB 968 have spread misinformation about the beach and the bill, such as eminent domain language remaining and the county has put restrictions on their ability to raise revenue for parking or providing other services.
Hill said upholding Californians’ long-established rights to access the coast is driving his efforts and he will continue to work to see the legislation through the Senate.
“All you have to do is create a little bit of fear, uncertainty and doubt. And lobbyists are well trained and well paid to do that,” Hill said. “But people vote on bills for many different reasons. So you just need to find that good reason for them to support it. Sometimes it’s relationships, sometimes it’s policy, sometimes it’s politics.”
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