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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Billionaire Sues to Keep Beachfront Private

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A recent federal lawsuit filed by billionaire Vinod Kholsa represents an escalation in the fight over a parcel of the California coast owned by the Silicon Valley magnate which several citizens and organizations claim should be open to the general public.

Kholsa, who owns the Martins Beach LLC, filed suit in Federal Court on Sept. 30 claiming the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission and San Mateo County are singling him out and using coercive tactics in their efforts to force him to forfeit his private property rights.

"This case involves 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," Kholsa says in the complaint.

The latest lawsuit opens another front in a battle that began when Kholsa purchased the parcel located about seven miles south of Half Moon Bay in 2008. Kholsa bought the property from the Denny family, which owned the property featuring approximately 40 rental cabins since the early 20th century.

Soon after Kholsa bought the property, conflicts between the county and coastal commission commenced, culminating in a lawsuit by Friends of Martins Beach in San Mateo Superior Court. The case was dismissed at the summary judgment phase, but a state appellate court remanded a single claim to the lower court.

Meanwhile, the Surfrider Foundation sued in 2013, claiming that Kholsa's operation of the gate between Highway 1 and his property constituted a development in a coastal zone and therefore required a permit. A San Mateo Superior Court judge found for the Surfrider Foundation, holding that Kholsa did need a permit to operate a gate that shuttered public access to Martins Beach.

Kholsa appealed the decision and oral argument will be heard in the state's First Appellate District, though it has yet to be scheduled.

The billionaire and his attorneys claim the operation of the gate has not substantively changed since he took over ownership of the property and he is being unfairly singled out.

However, the Surfrider Foundation and other coastal access advocates say a highway billboard that indicated the existence of Martins Beach was removed by Kholsa and a keycard gate previously used by the public was dismantled and removed.

"Billionaire Vinod Khosla is using this litigation to continue to cut off a treasured community resource from public access," said Surfrider's legal director Angela Howe in a prepared statement. "We have faith that the agencies will see through this strong-arm attempt and continue their valiant efforts to protect public access to public trust resources."

Kholsa and his attorneys say the case is about private property rights and equal treatment under the law.

"We, as a matter of principle, are opposed to state and local officials using coercion and harassment to "take" private property rights," said Dori Yob, attorney for Kholsa. "This is exactly what certain staff of the Coastal Commission and other state agencies have done - engaged in a campaign to extract private property rights from a property owner through extra-judicial harassing and coercive behavior."

Naoki Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Coastal Commission, did not comment on the suit as the agency has yet to be served.

San Mateo County Counsel John Beiers also said the county hasn't been served but had an opportunity to read the complaint.

"The allegations against the county are an overreach and the county is confident it will prevail," Beiers said in an email. "The county has and will continue to apply the law and cooperate with other government agencies to protect the interests of property owners while complying with state and local laws intended to ensure that the public is able to continue enjoying its historic access to coastal resources."

Kholsa's attorney is with the firm Hopkins & Carley in San Jose, California.

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