Surf’s up in Martins Beach access battle

The legal bout pitting a billionaire tech titan against an alliance of beachgoers, surfers, environmentalists and even a former U.S. Congressman is on again in a San Mateo County Superior courtroom.

At stake is access to Martins Beach, a secluded beach hideaway about five miles south of Half Moon Bay.

In one corner is a legal team for the non-profit Surfrider Foundation. In the other, counsel for Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc.

The eventual outcome of the legal fight will decide if the public will once again be able to enjoy Martins Beach. It’s also expected to have far-reaching impacts on the public’s ability to access beaches all along the coast.

Former U.S. Representative Pete McCloskey — who represented parts of the Peninsula and Silicon Valley in Congress from 1967 to 1983 — had been going to Martins beach since the 1940s.  He’s also one of lawyers for the law firm representing Surfrider, Burlingame-based law firm Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy.

McCloskey told SFBay:

“We think we have a Supreme Court-type issue.”

A local treasure for generations,  Martins Beach used to be accessible for all to enjoy.

But that access came to an end after Khosla — through two holding companies he operates — paid $37.5 million for 53 acres of the land adjacent to the beach in 2008.

Two years later, the only access road to the beach was closed, gates were installed and signs providing directions to the beach were removed.

Because large cliffs tower over both ends of the beach, with the access road blocked, the beach was, and remains, effectively closed to the public.

Surfers, beach goers and locals were appalled at the closure.

Surfrider went to court to open up access to the beach again, but lost its first round in the case when the previous judge, citing an 1848 treaty, ruled against the foundation.

With the case resuming, attorneys representing Surfrider will argue that failing to apply to the California Coastal Commission for a permit to install the gate on the access road, while blocking the public from getting to the beach, violates the California Coast Act.

The California Coast Act, passed in 1976, protects the state’s beaches and guarantees public access to those beaches.

McCloskey told SFBay:

“They’re playing this funny game.  I don’t know why he (Khosla) is so arrogant.”

Attorneys for Surfrider will also seek to have Khosla take the stand in the case, though it was not clear at the beginning of the proceedings if Khosla could be forced to testify.

Lead attorney Joe Cotchett said:

“Who is it that lives above the law in the state of California?  It’s called arrogance.”

Khosla’s attorney and Khosla’s firm, Khosla Ventures, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case has also caught the attention of state Senator Jerry Hill, who has introduced legislation that would authorize the State Lands Commission to buy some of the property, or seize it by eminent domain.


John Marshall is an SFBay editor and producer and writer for San Francisco’s KGO Radio.  Follow him on Twitter @breakingnewsman.