California Sues Billionaire to Open Beach to Public

(CN) – The state of California sued the owner of beachfront property Monday in the latest chapter of an ongoing saga that pits the public’s right to access a picturesque stretch of beach against private property rights.

The defining feature of Martins Beach rises from coastline as several beachgoers walk through the sand. (Matthew Renda/CNS)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Martins Beach LLC in San Mateo County Superior Court on Monday on behalf of the State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission. The state argues that because the public has been using the beach for generations, it has acquired access rights.

“California’s coastline belongs to everyone,” said Lt. Gov. and State Lands Commission chair Eleni Kounalakis. “This lawsuit is a critical part of California’s ongoing efforts to ensure public access and to protect the public’s rights to access its golden shores.”

The property in question is owned by Vinod Khosla, the billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Khosla bought the cabin-dappled parcel in 2008 and promptly closed a quarter-mile road that leads from Highway 1 down to the beach.

He charged people a nominal fee to access the beach for less than a year before putting up a gate with a remote-control lock and painting over the billboard that advertised beach access.

Khosla insists he owns the road that leads down to several beachfront cabins and can open and shut the gate at his discretion – something the previous owners of the property had also done.

However, several beachgoers who have been using the property for generations say Khosla’s policies are more restrictive and hamper public access.

State officials said they have ample evidence that the public could freely access Martins Beach going back several years before the ownership of the property by the Watt family, who opened a store near the beach in the 1920s.

“The public came to Martins Beach from far and wide to fish, swim, surf, walk, picnic, barbecue, camp, play, and enjoy other forms of recreation,” the state says in the complaint. “They had large family gatherings there, and they celebrated holidays and other milestones. They used the beach and road on weekdays and on weekends, during the day and night, in summer, winter, spring, and fall.”

Kholsa and his lawyers called the lawsuit an infringement on basic private property rights that represents a profound example of government overreach.

“Since the property was purchased by our client, the state and small activist groups have endeavored to seize our client’s private property without compensation,” said Dori Tob Kilmer, attorney for Kholsa.  “While such tactics are commonplace in communist systems, they have never been tolerated in the American system where the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from simply taking private property and giving it to the public.”

Khosla, who has taken certain elements of the legal fight over access to Martins Beach all the way to the California Supreme Court, will likely marshal considerable resources in fighting the case. He won a similar case brought against him by a nonprofit called Friends of Martins Beach. A judge ruled in the case that the nonprofit did not provide enough evidence that the public accessed the beach to the degree claimed, meaning a public right to the road could not be established.

Kilmer said the ruling demonstrates the legal theory forwarded by the state in Monday’s lawsuit is flawed.

“The claims asserted in today’s lawsuit have been extensively litigated and repeatedly rejected by the courts in a prior lawsuit,” she said.

But the state says there is evidence in the form of letters, diary entries, photographs and other records that prove the public had free access to Martins Beach for generations.

Kholsa has also lost lawsuits related to access at Martins Beach. Surfrider Foundation, a coastal advocacy nonprofit, sued the landowner and claimed that in order to close the gate to the quarter-mile road between Highway 1 and the beach, Kholsa needed to get a permit from the Coastal Commission.

The landowner said the gate was his to do with as he pleased.

Kholsa lost repeatedly, in superior court and appeals court, and both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

But Kilmer says requiring Kholsa to get a permit is a far different matter than taking over a stretch of private property.

Many champions of coastal access will watch the case closely given its potential to create precedent when it comes to the ability of wealthy landowners to throttle access to pristine areas of the California coast.

“This case goes to the heart of California’s public access mandate,” said Steve Padilla, chair of the coastal commission. “We cannot allow this to be chipped away each time someone purchases beachfront property – it’s a dangerous precedent for the future of public access in California.”

In Southern California, the Coastal Commission is attempting to wrest a public right-of-way through a high-end gated community called Hollister Ranch so the public can access an 8.5-mile beach adjacent to the ranch.

The commission has also ramped up enforcement efforts, handing down multimillion-dollar fines to property owners who block public access with gates, sheds, sea walls and other structures.

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