Martins beach

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Neeru Khosla attend the 2020 Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on Nov. 3 in Mountain View, California. (Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

The struggle over access to the picturesque Martin’s Beach on the Northern California coastline, which billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla claims he owns, continued Nov. 25 as the 1st District Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that gives the Indian American permission to close off the only road to the site.

In 2008, Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, bought the land surrounding Martin’s Beach for $32 million. The beach was formerly owned by the Deeney family, which had allowed public access for several decades. Shortly after buying the property, Khosla locked the gate to a tiny road that provided the only access to the beach. Security guards roamed the beach, shooing off alleged trespassers.

In California, according to rules maintained by the California Coastal Commission, all beaches must have public access up to the mean high tide line, the furthest point at which waves crash to the shore

Friends of Martin’s Beach and the Surfrider Foundation brought about two separate lawsuits in 2012, demanding Khosla provide public access to the beach. The tech billionaire has stubbornly fought against public access and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the matter. Members of the California state Legislature have attempted to invoke eminent domain; Khosla has also offered to sell the road to the beach for $38 million, the entire value of the property.

The Nov. 25 ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, California, affirmed a 2013 San Mateo County District Court ruling in the case brought about by the Friends of Martin’s Beach. In its 37-page decision, the Court of Appeals noted testimony from several residents who frequently picnicked on the beach when the Deeney family owned it. The Deeneys charged a $5 parking fee per car.

The parking fee was one of the key factors in the court’s decision. Friends of Martin’s Beach were required to prove that beachgoers had unfettered access to the property prior to Khosla’s locking off the road.

But the fee, ruled the court, suggested that access was limited only to those who had paid for parking and not to the general public. “Payment of a fee to access or use property implies that such use is not a matter of right but instead is a permitted use,” the appeals court wrote in their ruling. “A party who pays for a privilege and is granted the privilege in exchange for the payment is not acting as though he or she had an unfettered right to exercise the privilege.”

“Paying a fee to gain admission to Martin’s Beach was tantamount to obtaining permission or a license. Implicit in charging a fee is that the right to use the beach is conditional on payment,” ruled the court, arguing that the Deeney family in fact also limited access to the beach.

The court noted that the Deeneys and the Watt family, which leased out a portion of the land, had posted signs saying “toll road,” “no trespassing,” and “permit parking only.” Those who walked down the road without paying the fee were ordered to leave or pay the fee; if they refused, the Deeneys would threaten to call the Sheriff’s Department, according to the court ruling.

The Deeneys installed security cameras and enlisted the help of tenants who resided on the property to let them know when they saw people walking down the road. “All of this evidence supports a finding that Watt and the Deeneys were allowing use of the property, but only subject to payment and on terms acceptable to them,” ruled the court.

We are aware of “the strong policy expressed in the Constitution and statutes of this state of encouraging public use of shoreline recreational areas and the California Coastal Act describing as one of the basic goals of the state for the coastal zone to maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zones,” wrote the court, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has also encouraged public use of coastal shorelines.

However, concluded the court, “as strong as the coastal access policies of our state are, we do not understand them to empower us to do so.”

With the ruling, Khosla will now be able to apply for a permit from the California Coastal Commission allowing him to once again cut off access to Martin’s Beach.

(See earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2RqrQrq)

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