After nearly a year of working to reinstate public access to Martin’s Beach under more amicable terms, the State Lands Commission directed staff to begin investigating eminent domain proceedings against billionaire property owner Vinod Khosla.
The commission met in Sacramento Friday to review the status of its efforts to negotiate an easement providing the public with a permanent route to the beloved beach just south of Half Moon Bay.
As directed through legislation authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, the SLC has until the end of the year to negotiate access before it’s instructed to consider using eminent domain — an authority the state agency has long had but never utilized.
Khosla has returned the SLC’s offer to purchase a nearly 6.5-acre easement for an undisclosed price with a bold proposal. He’s now asked for the state to buy him a private beach in exchange for the entire nearly 50-acre Martin’s Beach — an unrealistic suggestion to which officials gave little deference.
Staff is expected to return to the SLC within the first quarter of 2016 with an exhaustive report on further options and how eminent domain proceedings against the wealthy landowner could unfold.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sits on the three-member commission, said he’s hopeful the SLC will receive broader support from the Legislature if it must consider eminent domain.
“It’s unfortunate, the amount of money that’s been spent all across the board on this; litigation, I know there’s two lawsuits,” said Newsom, according to a live video of the meeting. “We’re now getting to a point where the question needs to be called, and that question of course was [instructed] to us in January — eminent domain. That’s a significant shift in gears here and it’s not to be done, as they say, lightly.”
A range of issues from how the SLC could fund such proceedings, what kind of precedence it would set and whether the two civil cases currently in the appellate court system have an impact will be considered in the report, said SLC Executive Officer Jennifer Lucchesi.
If the commission opts to pursue eminent domain, it cannot draw from the $6.4 million statewide budget it has for negotiating easements, Lucchesi said.
Yet as Khosla’s request for the state to purchase him a private beach is a proposal Newsom said “respectfully, I can’t imagine we’d take seriously,” state officials are likely interested in supporting efforts to reopen the property.
“We don’t have the kind of resources that would be required. But that doesn’t mitigate the capacity to be creative and to engage the Legislature and the governor to consider a different kind of level of support, as opposed to just direction,” Newsom said, referring to the Legislature’s and Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval of the bill seeking public access. “I imagine the response will be swift coming back in the legislative session — there will be a lot of punctuation and momentum to move us more quickly,” said Newsom.
Whether state lawmakers step up to help further enforce the intention of Hill’s Senate Bill 968 and exactly what type of action will be needed, is left to be seen.
Despite the fast-approaching Jan. 1, 2016, deadline outlined in SB 968, Lucchesi said the SLC remains committed to attempting an amicable reinstatement of public access — assuming Khosla and his representatives make sincere efforts.
The SLC offered to purchase the public easement that would overlap the existing access road off Highway 1 down to the beach and run parallel above the median high tide line, where the state’s ownership stems westward. They also seek space for parking, portable toilets and trash cans — the maintenance of which would be handled by a local public agency.
“As things evolve, and if we are engaged in very meaningful, good faith negotiations to acquire a public access easement with the property owner, we will pursue that to its end. That is, in my opinion, the most effective way and cost-effective way of getting public access out there sooner rather than later; without spending a lot of money and decades of time fighting this,” Lucchesi said.
Lengthy and drawn-out civil proceedings are expected in the two civil suits currently pending in the appellate court. Khosla is appealing a San Mateo County Superior Court judge’s decision to side with the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation in its claim he violated the California Coastal Act by engaging in unpermitted development after he bought the property in 2008 for $32.5 million.
Khosla’s attorneys argue painting over a sign and closing the already established gate did not constitute development and forcing him to keep his property open to the public violates his Fifth Amendment rights.
Surfrider contends the land’s use changed when Khosla’s employees painted over a welcoming sign and hired security guards to keep the public off the beach that was once open to visitors for more than 100 years.
Amber Gill, vice chair of the San Mateo County Surfrider chapter, spoke at the meeting Friday pleading for the SLC to enforce Hill’s law and uphold the public’s interest in maintaining access to the coast.
“Our chapter is very disappointed that Mr. Khosla is not interested in seeking a reasonable solution,” Gill said. “Instead, [he’s] making an egregious power play.”
Other members of the public spoke in favor of reopening the property, including a 71-year-old woman named Helen who lives in Redwood City and said she grew up visiting Martin’s Beach as a child.
“I don’t believe that any beach in the state of California should belong to private property. It totally belongs to the state of California and the citizens,” said Helen, whose last name was not immediately available. “I’m so happy that you’ve taken this on and I want you to continue and fight for this hard.”
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