Billionaire Ordered to Open Gate to California Beach

SAN FRANCISCO – Beach access advocates notched another victory against a billionaire attempting to restrict access to a beach in Northern California, even as the fight continues to play out through the courts.

California’s First Appellate District ruled Vinod Khosla, owner of Martins Beach LLC, must keep the gate at Martins Beach open while the thorny legal issues related to property rights and public access progress through the court system.

“The court also issued an injunction that requires appellants to allow public coastal access at the same level that existed when appellants bought the Martins Beach property in 2008,” Acting Presiding Justice Mark Simons wrote. “We affirm the trial court’s conclusion appellants’ conduct is ‘development’ requiring a CDP under section 30106 of the Coastal Act.”

A CDP, or Coastal Development Permit, is required to be submitted and approved by the California Coastal Commission whenever a major alteration of a coastal property is proposed.

The court affirmed the legal interpretation that Khosla’s decision to close the gate to a road that connects Martins Beach to Highway 1 amounts to development that required a permit.

Martins Beach is located 7 miles south of Half Moon Bay and about 40 miles north of Santa Cruz. The road owned by Khosla is the only lateral connection for public access between the beach and the highway.

Khosla, a co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, has long maintained that it is his right as a property owner to open and close the gate as he sees fit. He disputes that the previous owners kept it open for public access.

However, the overarching matter was not decided in the ruling published on Thursday. Rather, the appellate court only affirmed a state judge’s order that Khosla must keep the gate open while the matter is being adjudicated.

Nevertheless, the finding that closing the gate constitutes development is clearly a win for the organizations fighting for access.

“We are pleased that the court continues to stand with the public and to protect the Coastal Act’s basic premise: the coast belongs to all Californians,” said John Claussen, chair of Surfrider Foundation’s San Mateo County chapter. Surfrider sued Khosla’s LLC in 2014 in San Mateo Superior Court.

Khosla bought the property in 2008 and charged people a nominal fee to access the beach for less than a year before he put up a gate with a remote-control lock and painted over the billboard that advertised beach access.

San Mateo County sent Khosla several letters saying he needed a permit to put up the gate block public access practices to the beach, according to the ruling, which he ignored.

In 2011, the California Coastal Commission followed up San Mateo’s letter with an enforcement letter of its own, insisting the LLC needed to either tear down the gate or go through the administrative process of getting a permit.

Khosla refuted needing a permit, saying the road has always been either open or closed to the public at the sole discretion of the property owner.

In October 2012, a group called Friends of Martins Beach sued Kholsa unsuccessfully, with a state judge ruling the billionaire’s private property rights outweighed the right of public access to the beach. However, that ruling was reversed in part by the First Appellate District and remanded to the trial court, where it is still pending.

While that matter was not decided by the latest ruling, it did punch holes in Kholsa’s interpretation of the Coastal Act as containing strong language that preserved private property rights.

“One of the basic goals of the state for the coastal zone is to maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles and constitutionally protected rights of private property owners,” Simons wrote in the ruling. “Thus, maximizing access is the goal, with the constitutional rights of property owners as the outside limit on access.”

The decision was also praised by a handful of public officials, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who sits on the State Lands Commission. Newsom has consistently voiced support for public access in the Martins Beach and other similar fights.

“The iconic natural spaces of California are treasures to be enjoyed and experienced by all Californians, not just the privileged few,” he said in a statement. “I am pleased that the court has once again reinforced the notion that public access to California’s coast is protected by the state and applaud California’s Surfrider Foundation in its relentless advocacy for public access to public beaches. California’s beaches are held in a public trust, for use by everyone.”

Justices Henry Needham Jr. and Terence Bruiniers concurred with Simons’ opinion.

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