Vinod Khosla’s beach battle in California continues into the new decade

For over a decade Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla has been involved in legal battle over Martins Beach in Lobitos, a town in San Mateo County south of Half Moon Bay, over one issue — allowing public access to the scenic stretch where people used to come to fish, swim, surf and sunbathe.

In 2008, the Silicon Valley billionaire bought two parcels of land adjacent to Martins Beach for $32 million, and after initially letting people to get to the beach through a road through his property, he locked the gates in 2010 on Martins Beach Road and posted guards.

The previous owners of the property allowed public to use the road to get to the beach but charged a fees for the road access and parking but not Khosla, and that is when the legal battle began with a beach-goers’ group, Friends of Martins Beach, suing him in court for restricting them access to the beach through the land he owned.

However, in that case the San Mateo Superior Court ruled in Khosla’s favor in 2013, basically saying that the beach had been in private hands long before laws were passed requiring public access to the coast. A 2017 court ruling forced Khosla to open public access to the beach.

And in 2018, Khosla filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 2017 ruling and also wanted to be compensated $30 million by the state to provide beach access through his land. The Supreme Court, however, refused to hear the case.

The battle over the beach, thus, has been going on for over a decade with Khosla, a staunch believer in property rights, showing no inclination to budge from his position.

“Mr. Khosla is willing to keep litigating this for the rest of his life and has about $3 billion to spend on it,” the New York Times wrote in an article in 2018.

Khosla told the paper he supports the Coastal Act and does not want to weaken it by winning in court, but added that “property rights are even more important.”

A new twist to the beach battle came in January this year when the California Coastal Commission and State Lands Commission sued Khosla over “improperly and illegally” restricting access for citizens to get to Martins Beach.

The two commissions asked for a right to use Martins Beach Road, a pathway from Highway 1 that crosses over Khosla’s land, as well as access to the beach.

California newspapers noted that the state’s involvement against Khosla has brought a level of escalation rarely seen in property right cases.

The legal battle over property rights and citizen rights in California, however, did not seem to touch people in the Indian American community living in the Bay area, including those who are beach goers.

Varsha Baichwal of Foster City in the peninsula, when asked to comment on the controversy over property rights Vs citizen rights, seemed hardly concerned, saying only the local residents maybe caring about this issue and people in the Bay area really don’t go to that beach because it is really the cold part of the Bay.

“My opinion is that it’s kind of a rich versus poor issue and because he’s rich, people are making a big controversy about it. Frankly, I don’t particularly care. It’s not like a chunk of freeway that people commute on,” she said.

A Bay area journalist, who did not want to be identified by name, said while the beach controversy in California involving Khosla is certainly a story, it is definitely not the most important issue happening today in California. “With things that are happening in India, in Iran and in Australia, this has not created any kind of buzz here,” the journalist said.

Padmini Raman, who lives in Redwood City, a half-hour drive from Khosla’s property, said she does not know how many people actually used to go from the coast to Martin Beach before it was locked because there are plenty of other free beaches around where one can go, and people like her never felt the need to go to that particular beach.

“People in my friends circle sometimes talk about the issue, but I think this is grabbing newspaper attention because this guy (Khosla) is a billionaire. My friends and I are waiting to see what the judge’s interpretation of law in this case as under California law, the California Coastal act, all beaches in the state are public. That is my only interest to watch the outcome from the legal point of view,” Raman said.

Steve Padilla, who chairs the Coastal Commission said earlier this month that this case goes to the heart of California’s public access mandate. “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,” Padilla was quoted as saying by Los Angeles Times.

Raman and others said in California there are quite a number of people who own property on the beaches and disputes like the one involving Khosla’s property has been not few and far between. “I think it is after a long time that such a high profile case has come up and that is why it is getting a lot of newspaper attention,” one Bay area resident said.

Alok Aggarwal, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur said he does not think the latest court case against Khosla has really created any kind of buzz among the Indian American community, although Khosla is of Indian origin. “Frankly speaking, I don’t think anybody is talking about this here in California,” he said.

“Currently, countries like India isin the midst of a national citizenship controversy and within U.S. there are many important issues, including Trump impeachment and conflict with Iran. Under this circumstances, I don’t think it really appears on anybody’s radar,” Aggarwal said.

Also, he said, the legal battle of Khosla is over a decade-old. “People who already know about it will probably think this has been going on for 10 years. So,their right now probably is like: ‘what is the big deal,’” Aggarwal said.

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