SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL
By BAY AREA NEWS GROUP and PAUL ROGERS |
PUBLISHED: August 24, 2018 at 12:00 am | UPDATED: August 31, 2018 at 12:00 am
A state agency is moving closer toward forcing Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla to permanently open Martins Beach in San Mateo County to the public, by seeking funding to help cover the costs of buying a route through his land “” whether he wants to sell it or not.
The State Lands Commission, on a 3-0 vote Thursday afternoon, set up a program to accept donations from the public, government agencies, non-profit groups and others that could be used to compensate Khosla, if the commission uses its power of eminent domain to require him to sell an easement, or public right of way, over a path from Highway 1 to the sandy beach.
The vote came as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to take up the high-profile case that has come to define whether wealthy residents in California can limit the public from the shoreline.
Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems and has a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion, bought 89 acres surrounding Martins Beach, south of Half Moon Bay, in 2008. Two years later, he locked the gate to a private road that the public had used for generations to access the shoreline, sparking a controversy that has gained national attention. The beach is surrounded by high cliffs and cannot be reached any other way by land other than through Khosla’s property.
Under the State Lands Commission’s new fund, which was authorized in June in the state budget bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the commission has set up a page on its website “” www.slc.ca.gov “” to accept donations.
“When it comes to the state’s public land, water and tidelands, the state is really committed to public access for the people of California,” said Sheri Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the commission, on Friday.
Already San Mateo County has pledged $1 million toward the fund. The new state budget allows another $1 million that the State Lands Commission has in another fund to be transferred into the Martins Beach account.
Exactly how much will be needed to pay for an eminent domain action against Khosla is unclear, however. The commission would need to approve an appraisal of the value of the route to find out.
The State Lands Commission appraised a public right-of-way over the 6.4 acres of Martins Beach Road at $360,000 in 2016. But Khosla said he would only sell it for $30 million, nearly as much as he paid for the entire property.
If the commission takes the access route by eminent domain, a court would ultimately decide its fair market value, similar to what happens when government takes private land to build freeways or other public projects.
Pemberton said Friday that she could not comment on whether the commission will vote for eminent domain at its next meeting in October, as environmental are urging. She said a new appraisal would need to be completed, taking into account that a sale of the easement would not be voluntary.
“They say they have the resolve to do this,” said Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental group. “We really want to see it happen. Certainly the will of the public is very strong on this. There is no reason for them not to act.”
Established in 1938, the State Lands Commission is a low-profile agency in Sacramento that oversees millions of acres of riverbeds, lake bottoms and submerged tidelands from the shoreline to three miles offshore. It is governed by a three-member board made up of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Controller Betty Yee and state Finance Director Michael Cohen.
Sources familiar with the case have said that the commission may be wary of using eminent domain because, if Khosla loses his ongoing legal battles, it would be paying for something the public might otherwise get for free, and setting a precedent with other wealthy coastal landowners. Others, however, believe that taking the access route now might render Khosla’s legal challenges moot because he would no longer own the rights to the road.
Meanwhile, the broader issue may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court
After Khosla closed the gate, the Surfrider Foundation sued him in 2013, arguing that he violated California’s Coastal Act, approved by voters in 1972, when he blocked access without receiving a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
Khosla argues that it is an infringement of his private property rights to require him get a permit to close a gate.
“To me, the Martin’s Beach dispute, however unpopular and damaging, is about principles of not being extorted or coerced into giving up property rights, a tactic many coastal property owners have detailed for me as routine practice by the Coastal Commission,” Khosla wrote in a blog post in May.
Critics, however, say that Khosla knew when he bought the property that the Coastal Act requires any property owner along California’s coastline to obtain a state permit not just for building a house, business or other structure, but also for “change in the intensity of use of water, or of access.”
Courts have so far dismissed Khosla’s argument. He lost first in San Mateo County Superior Court. Then last year, the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3-0 against him and ordered him to open the gate immediately.
The California Supreme Court refused to hear Khosla’s appeal. In February, he hired Paul Clement, one of the nation’s top U.S. Supreme Court attorneys, and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court asked Surfrider earlier this month to submit briefs, leading to speculation it may take the case in October, which could potentially re-write California’s coastal access laws.
Khosla has kept the gate open most days while he has continued to fight the case, and the San Mateo County sheriff’s office says it will not arrest anyone for trespassing if they use the road to access the beach.