Judge Nears Decision on Silicon Valley Billionaire Beach Trial

The San-Jose Mercury News reports that an epic war between surfers in northern California and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla over access to Martins Beach is about to see the results of the first battle: a decision from San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach. 

Mallach will hear final arguments from both sides Wednesday as the Surfrider Foundation, backed by approval from the California Coastal Commission, attempts to prevent Khosla from locking the gate on his private road down to Martins Beac, which he did in 2010. Khosla also had a billboard lauding the beach as a destination for the public painted over, and sometimes hired security guards by his private gate.

The case could have significant repercussions. If Khosla loses, property owners along the coast could have their rights severely impinged upon, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation. If he wins, the California Coastal Commission could lose much of its power. 

Mallach has to decide how to interpret Section 30106 of the 1976 Coastal Act. That section defines what is considered development in coastal areas and thus what actions require a permit. The definition asserts that any "change in intensity of the use of water, or of access thereto" requires a permit. Surfrider argues that when the gate was locked in 2010, Khosla should have been required to obtain a permit.

If the judge rules that Khosla has to apply for the permit, the surfers know that the Coastal Commission could reject it, forcing khosla to pay up to $22 million in fines.

Nancy Cave, manager for the Coastal Commission's San Mateo County district, told the Mercury News in 2012 that locking the gate should be considered development and thus a permit was required. Joseph Petrillo, the lead writer of the Coastal Act, the Coastal Commission's first general counsel, who later supervised the California Coastal Conservancy, echoed, "People were going back and forth to the beach, and now they can't. That's a change. And that's what the Coastal Act was supposed to preserve."

But Khosla's attorneys assert that "access" in Section 30106 means a legal right of public access, or easement, not "permissive" access, which entails access by invitation to private property. Before Khosla bought the property from the Deeney family in 2008, the Deeney family allowed the public to access the beach through their property, only charging a parking fee. The attorneys add that the public never held any legal right to access the property. They argue that for a property owner to be unable to force trespassers without government permission is a violation of his fundamental property rights.

Khosla’s lawyers also assert, according to the Mercury News that the key phrase in Section 30106 has been taken out of context. Properly viewed, they argue, the language regarding changes in access to water is meant to designate new development projects, not painting over a billboard or closing a gate.

Both sides are prepared to appeal Mallach’s decision.


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