Martins Beach lawyers talk legal fees

By Aaron Kinney,

Posted: 02/20/15, 6:28 PM PST |

REDWOOD CITY >> Attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation and billionaire Vinod Khosla sparred over legal fees Friday in a final flurry of courtroom action before the Martins Beach case, already one of the most famous coastal access fights in California history, heads to appeal.

A high-powered legal team that is representing Surfrider for free wants the investment mogul to pay roughly $609,000, which the lawyers claim is about three-quarters of the amount they would have charged a paying client.

The fee dispute appears to be the last scene of the first act in the Martins Beach drama. Khosla’s attorneys notified San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach last week that they will appeal her Dec. 5 judgment requiring the venture capitalist to allow vehicles to drive across his private San Mateo County land to the beach.

Khosla’s property managers opened the road sporadically for six weeks after Mallach’s ruling, but Surfrider claims Martins Beach Road has been shut since mid-January, around the time Khosla’s employees expressed concerns about their personal safety. The property managers say people have made threats, both online and in-person, and vandalized the gate off Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay.

Now the gate could remain shut for months, if not years, as the case makes its way through the appeals process. Khosla’s lawyers, Jeffrey Essner and Dori Yob, claim that filing a notice of appeal granted them relief from Mallach’s ruling. Surfrider attorney Eric Buescher disagrees and has asked Mallach for guidance.

“It’s frustrating for everybody involved that nobody’s sure what should be happening,” Buescher said after Friday’s hearing.

Essner and Yob declined to comment.

Buescher claims Surfrider is entitled to the legal fees because it prevailed in a case involving the public good. The other side argues, in part, that Surfrider has not provided enough documentation to back up the hours it billed. Mallach is expected to rule on the fees in coming days.

Khosla bought the secluded oceanfront property in 2008 from a family that for nearly a century had allowed the public to visit the beach in exchange for a parking fee. The green-tech investor kept up the practice for two years before locking the gate for good.

Mallach ruled that Khosla must keep the gate open to the same extent as the previous owners unless San Mateo County or the California Coastal Commission approves a coastal development permit allowing him to change the public’s ability to reach the ocean off his property. Khosla has refused to apply for the permit, claiming Surfrider and the government are conspiring to deprive him of his property rights.