Martins Beach: Hopes fade for state bid to buy public access from Vinod Khosla

By Aaron Kinney, Bay Area News Group

The gate for public access to Martins Beach in Half Moon Bay was closed on Wednesday, July 1, 2015. San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach ruled in favor of beach access with a” December 5, 2014 decision” requiring owner Vinod Khosla to obtain a permit from the Coastal Commission for any change in access to the beach.

John Green “” Bay Area News Group

SACRAMENTO >> A campaign to acquire public access to secluded Martins Beach using the state’s power of eminent domain is now all but dead, but the State Lands Commission has not given up on striking a voluntary agreement with the property owner, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

At a commission meeting Tuesday, Executive Officer Jennifer Lucchesi reported the agency is working on a new proposal to submit to Khosla, who bought the 89-acre property in 2008 for $32.5 million using an entity known as Martins Beach LLC. The land just south of Half Moon Bay includes several dozen rental cabins.

“There have been some recent developments including a new acquisition concept proposed by some of the residents renting homes at Martins Beach that warrant additional research,” said Lucchesi, “including discussions with the Coastal Commission staff, San Mateo County, and representatives of Martins Beach LLC.”

In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, Lucchesi declined to provide further detail about the new proposal. Attorneys for Khosla also declined to comment.

Khosla, a global leader in clean energy investment, has shown no interest in the agency’s original bid to buy a 6.39-acre right of way from Highway 1 to the shore. The easement would include a swath of Khosla’s private sandy beach.

The controversy over Martins Beach began in 2010, when Khosla closed a gate at the top of a private road that provides the only access to the cove from Highway 1. The previous owners, the Deeney family, had allowed the public to visit the beach for decades “” advertising the spot with a billboard and operating a store and restrooms “” in exchange for a modest parking fee.

The dispute has spawned two lawsuits by surfers seeking to restore public access to the tidal zone, which belongs to the state of California. Both suits are expected to be tied up in appeals for years.

In 2014, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, authored legislation requiring the commission, which holds California’s tidal lands in trust for the benefit of the public, to negotiate the purchase of an easement allowing the public to return.

Hill gave the commission the option, if negotiations failed, of using its power of condemnation to force Khosla to sell. Talks were to last through the end of 2015.

But the commission revealed in December it could not use its land-acquisition fund for the purpose of eminent domain, dealing a serious if not lethal blow to the plan.

Hill’s office has explored other state funds that could be tapped, but now believes that an appropriation from the general fund may be the only feasible route.

But even that would be a tough task. Eminent domain is a politically touchy subject. It’s unclear whether a majority of legislators would agree to spend millions of dollars to force a powerful businessman to provide coastal access to citizens from an affluent district.

In an interview in May, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of the commission’s three voting members, was pessimistic about the prospect of eminent domain.

Asked if he supported using condemnation, Newsom said, “You’ve got to find the money if you’re going to do that. The money doesn’t exist, certainly at state lands. It has to be appropriated from the Legislature. The likelihood of that is slim.”

The commission has not revealed how much it offered Khosla for the easement. Khosla’s team has estimated the value at $30 million, a sum the commission views as far too high.

Hill was unavailable for comment Tuesday. In a statement he said he remains engaged in the issue and is “hopeful that this issue can be resolved soon so Californians can continue enjoying this magnificent beach.”

Newsom also could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He mixed optimism with realism May 4 when interviewed in San Francisco at the launch of the campaign for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, a pot-legalization measure that will likely appear on the November ballot.

“We are trying everything we can to get to a solution on this. We want public access,” Newsom said at the time. “I remain honestly hopeful we can find some compromise here, but I’m not naive “” it’s been a difficult year.”