Coastal Commission asked to enforce access to Half Moon Bay’s Martin’s Beach

By Julia Scott – San Mateo County Times
Posted: 08/31/2011 01:30:11 AM PDT

When popular Martin’s Beach was purchased in 2008 and padlocked to the public, the new owner kept himself so well hidden that no one knew who to be angry with. Now signs are pointing to a possible culprit: Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

The evidence — a combination of community scuttlebutt and telling business connections — has convinced the San Mateo County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. It sent Khosla a certified letter in early August asking for a meeting about restoring public access to Martin’s Beach. To date, Khosla has not replied. But in a brief interview this week he passed up the chance to deny his ownership.

Khosla is founder and CEO of Khosla Ventures, one of the Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capital firms. He is well known for his commitment to clean energy technology and has been dubbed the “king” of green investing.

So it was more than a little ironic when Surfrider concluded that Khosla was behind the decision to close off one of San Mateo County’s most beloved stretches of coastline after decades of public fishing, surfing, picnicking and sunbathing.

“There was a good enough preponderance of evidence pointing that way,” said Mike Wallace, a spokesman for the Surfrider chapter. “I didn’t expect to hear from him, but I wanted to reach him so he would know people are on to him.”

The controversy over Martin’s Beach already has prompted a lawsuit and a letter from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, who wrote to the California Coastal Commission in late July, urging staff members to restore public access to the beach.

Approached outside his office on Monday, Khosla would not comment on whether he owns Martin’s Beach. He said he hadn’t seen the Surfrider letter, which was sent by certified mail Aug. 3.

“I’m in the middle of a meeting,” Khosla said, walking away quickly. “I haven’t seen the letter. I’ll respond to the letter when I receive it.”

He would not answer other questions and did not respond to a subsequent email.

Evidence linking Khosla to Martin’s Beach is inconclusive. No public documents have been found identifying the owner of Martins Beach LLC the company that shelled out $33.75 million for two beachfront parcels in July 2008. Not even the people who rent beachside houses along Martin’s Beach know who the owner is. Nor does the Coastal Commission, which is investigating the issue.

The new owner even went so far as to place a gag order on the former owners, the Deeney family of Half Moon Bay, as a condition of purchase.

Here’s what is known:

Martins Beach, LLC is managed by Steven Baugher, a Morgan Hill resident who also handled the application and permitting process to construct the new offices of Khosla Ventures on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. Baugher, not Khosla, was the applicant for the new office building, which is under construction a few doors down from the current headquarters of Khosla Ventures. Baugher would not comment for this story.

Khosla is also closely connected with Kim Totah, a San Jose tax manager who handles complicated property matters for wealthy clients. Totah registered Martins Beach, LLC with the Secretary of State in 2008. According to records, she also registered two other limited liability corporations that are connected to Khosla: Skull Ranch, LLC and Anderson Lake Ranch, LLC. Totah also represents Khosla on the board of Grama Vidiyal, a microfinance fund.

Williams said a real estate broker who handles large coastal properties told him Martin’s Beach was purchased by a “Sand Hill Road venture capitalist.”

The Surfrider Foundation is launching a campaign to pry open the gate to Martin’s Beach. To them, losing access to the beach will set a dangerous precedent for coastal lands across the state.

“It’s a kind of rallying cry. If we let this one go, it can be repeated,” Wallace said.

Martin’s Beach is private, and so is the access road from Highway 1. Previous owners charged a token fee to carloads of people who drove out there on weekends to fish for smelt or play on the beach. Lawyers for Martins Beach, LLC have argued that no public right of access exists today, but the Coastal Commission may see things differently.

Californians are entitled to access every beach in the state, according to the Coastal Act, but they may not be able to use a private road to get there.

The San Mateo County Planning Department asked the Coastal Commission to enforce the law on Martin’s Beach more than six months ago, but commission staff still won’t confirm whether they plan to take on the fight.

“The facts of this case are very, very complicated,” said Nancy Cave, enforcement program supervisor. “This is a high priority case for us, but it’s not the only one.”