State now joins Martins Beach controversy
The gate at Martins Beach in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 11.

(John Green — Bay Area News Group)

By Aaron Kinney,

HALF MOON BAY “” When the calendar flipped to 2015, the state of California officially waded into the controversy over Martins Beach, beginning a yearlong negotiation to buy a public access route to the shoreline, including the sandy beach, from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Under a new law that took effect Thursday, the State Lands Commission has until Dec. 31 to work out a deal with Khosla, who has blocked the public from visiting the San Mateo County beach since 2010. If the talks fail, the legislation asks the commission to consider using its power of eminent domain to force Khosla to sell the state a right-of-way on his private property.

The law, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is one of four fronts in the battle to reopen Martins Beach, an 89-acre coastal property that Khosla bought for $32.5 million in 2008. The investor is fighting off two lawsuits, and the California Coastal Commission is threatening Khosla with $11,250 in daily fines for alleged Coastal Act violations.

The legislation was conceived as a speedier and more comprehensive alternative to the lawsuits, which are likely to be tied up in appeals for years. Khosla’s legal opponents, along with the Coastal Commission, are attempting to restore a historical pattern of access that gives the property owner some discretion as to when the beach is open. Hill’s law asks the State Lands Commission to consult with San Mateo County and other local stakeholders on taking over management of the road and visitor access from Khosla.

The commission manages roughly 4 million acres of sovereign lands, including tide and submerged lands that the state holds in trust for the benefit of the public. Among its duties, the commission resolves boundary disputes along state waterways and manages leases for offshore oil and gas facilities.

The agency has a staff of roughly 240 people and a three-member board of commissioners comprised of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Finance Director Michael Cohen and incoming state Controller Betty Yee, who takes office Monday. The commissioners would vote on any deal the agency reaches with Khosla or the use of eminent domain.

Jennifer Lucchesi, the commission’s executive director, said last week she was preparing to send a letter to Khosla’s representatives initiating discussions. Lawyers for Khosla did not respond to a request for comment.

In court documents filed last month, Khosla’s attorneys argued Hill’s legislation creates a conflict between California’s judicial and legislative branches. San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach ordered Khosla on Dec. 5 to reopen the gate on a private road leading to Martins Beach from state Highway 1. But she did not offer to compensate Khosla for providing that access, the attorneys said, in contrast with the provisions of the new law.

Mallach’s ruling requires Khosla to keep the gate open on the same terms as the land’s previous owners, the Deeney family, who for decades allowed motorists to visit their property in exchange for a small parking fee. Rich Deeney, the family patriarch, told the court last year they closed the gate in poor weather, during private parties, and whenever they weren’t available to collect the parking fee.

The gate has been mostly closed since Mallach issued her ruling. The California Coastal Commission sent a letter to Khosla on Dec. 8 informing him that he was violating the Coastal Act by keeping the gate locked. Khosla’s attorneys responded by saying he intended to comply with the court order but had been forced to keep the gate shut because of bad weather. The weather has since improved, but the gate is still often locked. It was open on Friday, however, according to Robert Caughlan, a coastal advocate and former president of the Surfrider Foundation.

Mark Massara, an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, the plaintiff in the suit, claims Deeney’s testimony about the terms of access was misleading. The family tended to leave the gate open, even when the beach was technically closed, Massara said, and sometimes allowed visitors to drive down without collecting a parking toll.

Estimates vary as to how much it would cost the state to buy a right of way from Highway 1 to Martins Beach. San Mateo County has put the price around $1 million or $2 million, while some state legislative analysts have said the cost could climb upward of $10 million. The commission has a fund of roughly $6 million it could use to make the purchase.

Complicating matters is Khosla’s claim, bolstered by a 2013 ruling by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Gerald Buchwald, that he owns the tidelands and offshore submerged lands at Martins Beach. Tidelands are the portion of a beach between the high and low tide lines. They are generally owned by the state and available for public use.

The staff of the State Land Commission disagrees with Khosla and Buchwald and notes that a private landowner cannot establish a property claim to tidelands or submerged lands in a lawsuit, as Khosla did, without involving the party whose land is at stake “” namely, the state of California.

If he sticks to his guns, Khosla could demand that the state pay him millions for land that California asserts it already owns.

Hill, the legislator responsible for the negotiations, said he is optimistic that a deal for public access can be reached. If not, he said, the commission should use its eminent domain power, something the agency has never done in its 77-year history.

“There’s no circumstance that fits (that) purpose more than this one at Martin Beach,” Hill said.