Billionaire’s Fight to Close Path to a California Beach Comes to a Dead End

Source: By Nellie Bowles, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose belief in property rights outweighed his affinity for a state access law.

“If I were to ever win in the Supreme Court, I’d be depressed about it,” Vinod Khosla has said.Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — It was a happy day for the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla: He lost his battle.

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Mr. Khosla’s appeal to overturn a ruling that the beach access path cutting through a coastal village he owns near Half Moon Bay, Calif., must stay open.

Now Mr. Khosla, a billionaire who founded Sun Microsystems and helped lay the foundations of the consumer internet, has to apply for a permit to close the narrow road down to a popular surfing spot known as Martin’s Beach. That’s it.

But over nearly a decade in the courts, the battle became deeply symbolic to Mr. Khosla, who has said he was fighting on principle to stop a violation of property rights. So why was he likely to be happy he lost? He has said he never wanted to win.

As the case wound its way up to the Supreme Court, it threatened to gut California’s Coastal Act of 1976, which enshrines public access to beaches as a right.

“If I were to ever win in the Supreme Court, I’d be depressed about it,” he told The New York Times this year. “I support the Coastal Act; I don’t want to weaken it by winning. But property rights are even more important.”

The situation began shortly after 2008 when Mr. Khosla bought a 53-acre hillside on the Northern California coast. It had about 47 cottages on it and was known as Martin’s Beach. While the previous owners had largely left the gate to the beach open and charged for parking, Mr. Khosla decided not to do the same. He tried to close the road, immediately sparking a controversy.

Over the years, the battle grew increasingly contentious. At one point, Mr. Khosla, who owns the land through a holding company, hired guards to stand at the top of the road. In 2012, five surfers were arrested and became known as the Martin’s Five.

The Surfrider Foundation, which led the fight to keep the road open, hailed the Supreme Court’s decision as one that saves the coast from being slowly privatized by wealthy landowners.

“Whether you have to drive an hour to the coast and picnic or whether you can spend $32 million and buy property adjacent to the coast, the beach belongs to everybody,” said Eric Buescher, an attorney working on the case for the Surfrider Foundation. “The Coastal Act survives the whims of a billionaire and continues to protect the people of California.”

If the Supreme Court had heard the case and ultimately ruled in favor of Mr. Khosla, the ruling could have not only reshaped the laws that govern 1,100 miles of California shoreline but also affected public access to beaches, lakes and waterways in 22 states, according to the Surfrider Foundation.

“This case reaffirms that you cannot make a unilateral decision to shut down a beach that has provided generations of families with memories,” Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement at the California Coastal Commission, said in a statement.

For Mr. Khosla, this means the state is forcing him to keep open a money-losing business. The beach, he had argued, is not as popular as it used to be, and charging for parking no longer covers the cost of an attendant and maintenance of public facilities.

“No owner of private business should be forced to obtain a permit from the government before deciding who it wants to invite onto its property,” Mr. Khosla’s lawyer Dori Yob Kilmer said in a statement. “No business owner should be forced to obtain a permit from the government to shut down a private business, to change prices from those that existed in 1972 (as the state has demanded) or to change hours of operation.”

The Supreme Court’s action on Monday ends this peculiar saga, which has captivated Silicon Valley.

Well, it may end it. Mr. Khosla, who referred questions to Ms. Kilmer, must now apply for that permit to close the road to Martin’s Beach.

“If denied,” Ms. Kilmer said, “we will start this process over again.”