Legal battle continues over public beach access at Khosla’s property

The legal battle over public beach access near property owned by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla is continuing in two separate cases, and a third is pending in federal court.

A trial is currently underway in San Mateo County Superior Court for a lawsuit filed by the group Friends of Martin’s Beach against Martins Beach 1 and Martins Beach 2, two limited liability corporations owned by Khosla. The trial entered its fourth day on Nov. 2. At stake in that suit is whether the public’s right to access the beach predates Khosla’s ownership of the abutting property because the previous owners had allowed public access for decades.

In a separate case, the California Supreme Court declined in October to review a state court of appeal’s ruling issued in August that ordered the beach-access gate on Khosla’s property be opened. That case was brought by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation against Khosla’s two LLCs that manage the property.

Khosla’s attorneys have 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a possible 60-day extension. If the U.S. Supreme Court declines to take the case, the state appellate court’s ruling would be final.

The appellate court ruled on Aug. 10 that closing the gate across the beach access road required a coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission. Failure to open the gate could result in fines of up to $11,250 a day. In early October, the gate was opened on certain days.

On Oct. 25, the state’s supreme court denied Khosla’s attorneys’ petition to review the lower court’s judgment.

Eric Buescher, an attorney with Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy representing the Surfrider Foundation said he has received no indication from Khosla’s attorneys as to whether they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

“That said, I expect they will file a request to do so,” he wrote in an email.

The suits brought by the Surfrider Foundation and Friends of Martins Beach are distinct, and the appellate court’s decision is final, regardless of how the Friends of Martins Beach trial concludes, unless the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the case, Buescher said.

Attorneys for Khosla and Friends of Martin’s Beach did not immediately respond to VCJ’s requests for comment.

Martin’s Beach is an isolated, crescent-shaped strip of sand near Half Moon Bay south of San Francisco. While the beach itself is public land, the property next to it is not, and the only access route to the beach is through the property now owned by Khosla. The beach was popular with surfers and families for decades until Khosla purchased the property in 2008 for $32.5 million and subsequently closed a gate across the access road.

In a third lawsuit filed in September 2016, Khosla’s limited liability companies sued the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission and San Mateo County in federal court for a “concerted effort by state and local officials to single out, coerce, and harass one coastal property and its owner for refusing to cede its private property rights.” Each of the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, and those are under submission awaiting a judge’s ruling.

“I do not expect a ruling from the judge until after a decision is issued by the state court judge in the Friends of Martins Beach case,” Buescher wrote, “although the court has not provided any information about when such a ruling will be issued.”

Photo of the gate on a private road barring access to Martins Beach in Half Moon Bay, California, by Kaitlyn Bartley.