California lawmakers aim to settle Khosla beach-access dispute

California lawmakers are inching toward a possible resolution to a longstanding dispute with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla over public access to Martins Beach, south of Half Moon Bay.

On May 31, the State Senate approved a bill that allows San Mateo County, nonprofit organizations and the public to contribute funds with which the state would acquire an easement along Martins Beach Road. Khosla owns this road, which is the only access point to the pristine beach.

In 2008, Khosla purchased the 89-acre coastal property for $32.5 million. The previous owners had charged the public a small fee to use the road to access the beach and park cars. But in 2010 Khosla closed the gate to the road and posted no-trespassing signs.

The move drew the ire of locals and surfers who frequented the beach. Bumper stickers that read “Khosla don’t surf,” a play on a line from the film “Apocalypse Now,” can still be spotted on cars and longboards in the area.

“The public, for decades, many decades, have always had access on that roadway, and we believe they have prescriptive rights to access (the beach),” said Don Horsley, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, whose jurisdiction includes the county coastal region. “In the long run, we believe the law is on our side. I think (Khosla) really believes that he owns this private property and has the right to exclude the public, and we just don’t agree.”

The dispute over Martins Beach has spawned three lawsuits currently wending their way through the courts. The State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission have gotten involved, and State Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Mateo, has proposed legislation to enable the state to pursue acquiring a right-of-way on 6.4 acres of the land along the disputed road and down to the beach.

Neither Khosla nor his attorneys responded to VCJ’s requests for comment.

California law states that the state owns the land seaward of the mean high-tide line, meaning that adjacent property owners cannot claim it as private. And under certain conditions, long-term public access across private property can result in the establishment of a permanent public easement called a public prescriptive right of access, according to the California Coastal Commission.

The bill the State Senate approved in May establishes a dedicated fund for contributions to enable the State Lands Commission to acquire the land. The agency currently is authorized to spend only state funds when acquiring property, Hill says, and the commission’s land-acquisition fund cannot be used for eminent domain. The new bill would create a new subaccount specifically to acquire the property at Martins Beach.

“This allows more flexibility for the State Lands Commission to use the authority they currently have,” Hill said in an interview.

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Photo of the Martins Beach gate in Half Moon Bay, California. Photo courtesy of San Mateo County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

In December, the commission ordered an analysis of using eminent domain at Martins Beach, which has yet to be released. The commission has never used its power of condemnation. But if it does, Hill’s legislation would establish a mechanism to enable public and private funds to purchase the easement.

“It’s critical that we allow the State Lands Commission to carry out their important mission of safeguarding the public’s access rights to waterways and the coastline,” Hill said during the vote on the Senate floor. The bill now goes to the Assembly for approval, then to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

But even if the legislation passes, a fair price for the land will need to be set. In December, the commission had the easement assessed, which put its fair market value at $360,000. Representatives for Khosla countered that the right-of-way’s value could be $30 million. Jennifer Lucchesi, executive officer of the State Lands Commission, said Khosla’s team has not documented the $30 million estimate.

“Mr. Khosla is unwilling to be coerced into giving up a vested constitutional property right,” said Jeffrey Essner, an attorney with Hopkins & Carley, which represents Khosla, at a lands commission public hearing in December. “The political drama that we see playing out is a drama that’s been manufactured by the media, the state, and has become political fodder for politicians.”

“Is this the best and highest use of state funds among the many issues facing this state?” Essner added.

Vinod Khosla (center) exits San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City, California, May 12, 2014 after testifying over an ongoing legal battle over public access to Martin’s Beach. He purchased and subsequently closed the only access road to the private property. Reuters/Stephen Lam

As Hill’s bill moves to the state assembly, San Mateo County supervisors are expected to vote in June on whether to allocate $1 million of county funds to help pay for the land, should the State Lands Commission move forward with acquiring it.

“We’ll see if [Khosla] is amenable to some reasonable price for the acquisition of the easement. Or if he fights it, then it has to go to the eminent-domain process,” Horsley said.

County Supervisor Horsley said he doesn’t expect the dispute to conclude anytime soon. [Khosla] “legitimately believes that’s his private property and he should be able to do what he wants,” he said. “I would not be surprised if he tries to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Vinod Khosla, seen here at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, on Nov. 9, 2014. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Stephen Lam