Judge Barbara Mallach of the San Mateo County Superior Court ruled on September 25, 2014 that billionaire Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, may not close the gate to the road providing public access to Martin’s Beach in San Mateo County, California.
Under the constitution in California, all beaches are open to the public, but private landowners are not always required to allow access over their properties.The access may be only temporary if Khosla’s attorneys appeal up to the Supreme Court if necessary. The judge’s ruling says blocking the road requires a Coastal Commission permit.
At least 100 people were arrested for “trespassing” on the beach so The Surfrider Foundation filed the suit in 2013. They contend that Khosla violated the California Coastal Act of 1976 and should pay the maximum fine of $15,000 a day which would total about $20 million. Judge Mallach ruled against penalties or fines since Khosla’s conduct “was in good faith”.
Khosla bought the 53 acre property in 2008 for $37.5 million. In 2010, he locked the gate to the road that the public had used to access the popular beach and hired guards to keep people away. There had been a sign welcoming the public to the beach and the previous owner charged $5 to get to the sand. The the sign was painted over and the public is warned to stay out. A key code was needed to open the gate enough to get a car into the parking lots below.
Khosla’s attorney argued that Khosla ignored the county telling him he needed a coastal permit to close the gate because he was simply closing a gate already there, and that the Coastal Commission was violating his 5th Amendment property rights. Khosla did not get the necessary permits either when he made road and drainage improvements. He claimed he paid between $500,000 and $600,000 yearly for maintenance, liability insurance, infrastructure and other expenses and that it was unreasonable for him to pay exorbitant fees to keep the beach open to the public.
Khosla disagrees with the Calif. Constitution contention that beaches are public property, saying the Martin’s Beach issue was settled by Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald. The Judge ruled the beach remained subject to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War and requires the U.S. to recognize Mexican land grants. In essence, the treaty extinguishes all public rights to the property. Khosla says he would never harm the environment and has no plans for the property.
California laws declare beaches public property below mean high tide line and that they must remain open. Attorney Eric Buescher of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy said “Coastal access is a right of all the people of this state.” Surfrider Foundation asks people in all states to speak out and join with them in their stand of hundreds of cases to defend public access coastline rights to use the beaches.