The Billionaire Who Stole a California Beach, and the Surfers Who Are Winning it Back

The mogul who's been battling to keep the public off a beach near Half Moon Bay is not just some libertarian jerk.

Photo Credit: 'Martin's 5: Battle for the Beach,' by The Intertia

Reprinted with permission from Hilltromper where it originally appeared

Earlier this week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill instructing the State Lands Commission to negotiate with billionaire and cleantech champion Vinod Khosla about buying a public right-of-way across his property to allow public access to embattled Martins Beach. If a deal can't be struck by Jan. 1, 2016, the commission may use its power of eminent domain to force a sale.

It doesn't sound like Khosla's much interested in negotiating. His company responded in a statement this afternoon that Khosla will "continue to fight for his property rights," and that "pandering politicians want rights the state did not want to pay for."

Khosla, who has been battling for years to keep the public off this beach near Half Moon Bay, is not just some libertarian jerk. That must be said for two reasons: 1) he is unafraid of being thought a jerk, and has been making a lot of enemies around here lately; and 2) he is the nation's leading investor in green technology, and is funding companies doing some of the most important work on the planet.

The facts of the Martins Beach story are well-known: Three years after buying a piece of oceanfront property, Khosla closed a gate to the road locals had used to access the beach for generations, occasionally sending armed guards to the property to deter beach-goers. Last year theSurfrider Foundation sued Khosla for failing to get a permit from the Coastal Commission for barring access, and last week a judge ruled in Surfrider's favor.

In typically blunt fashion, Khosla frames the situation as a simple property rights matter: "If they wanted you to make your backyard a park, would that hurt you?" Of course in this case, the "park" was already there when Khosla arrived and decided to turn it into his backyard.

Regarding the long-held and widely revered principle that California beaches are public property—a rule enshrined in the public trust doctrine in the state Constitution—Khosla says, "I disagree with that."

He says he did what he did because he'd received a letter from San Mateo County and the Coastal Commission instructing him to charge no more than $2 for parking—the price in 1973, when the Commission's coastal development laws went into effect—and keep the road open throughout the winter. (The previous owner had charged $10, and closed the road in inclement weather, practices Khosla had continued for two years after purchasing the land.)

Now, one might imagine that Khosla, co-founder of the juggernaut Sun Microsystems and one of the most successful venture capitalists in the history of Silicon Valley, would respond with some hardcore negotiations. Instead, he dug in his heels, locked the gate permanently, sent in the guards, and escalated.

In a statement last year, Khosla accused Surfrider of encouraging "mob behavior" and "class warfare."

"Surfrider and the Coastal Commission are attempting to coerce and blackmail me," he said, claiming the Coastal Commission had rebuffed his team's efforts to compromise.

Coastal Commission district manager Nancy Cave denied that claim. Khosla's attorneys, she said, were unwilling to discuss any compromises that would have allowed public access. Speaking to the the San Jose Mercury News, Cave quoted Khosla's attorneys as saying: "'We're waiting for you to take an enforcement action so we can sue you.' That was their response to everything we suggested."

That account is the easier one to believe, because Khosla has earned a reputation for his provocative and combative positions. Despite being held in high esteem by many environmentalists, Khosla does not return the affection. "Cleantech has been hurt more by environmentalists than any other constituency," he says. "Environmentalists push all these idealized solutions that don’t make any economic sense.” Government, he added, should just “stay out of our way.”

Meanwhile, it is not impossible that Khosla is working harder than anyone else in the private sector to fund technologies to combat global warming. And as of this writing, despite last week's court order, the road to Martins Beach is still on the other side of a locked gate.

Watch the story of the Martins Beach Five, a group of surfers who jumped the gate in protest:

Eric Johnson is a longtime alt-weekly editor and co-founder of the Santa Cruz-based Hilltromper, a one-stop resource for everyday outdoor adventure, sustainable living and a healthy dose of eco-politics. 

 

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