In one corner, a Silicon Valley mogul and oceanfront property owner who doesn't like sharing Martins Beach with us riffraff.
In the other corner, beach-going Californians who enjoyed that beach south of Half Moon Bay for decades, only to be locked out by the billionaire bully.
The scrum got dragged before the California State Lands Commission Tuesday in Sacramento, and state officials puffed their chests and threw a couple of sharp jabs at Vinod Khosla. But behind every billionaire who wants his way is a battalion of attorneys whose job is to deliver the goods. So you get the feeling we're still in the early rounds of a long fight that has already been going on through several years and four lawsuits.
"We're entering the next phase here, and we are leaning in," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Lands Commission member and candidate for governor. "And we are not happy about this impasse, and we are resolved to doing something about it."
Like what, exactly?
They're "directing staff" to look into the matter, and lay out a strategy for possibly condemning the property and claiming it through eminent domain.
"We are now moving in that direction in earnest," said Newsom.
"We are resolved to provide public access to this public resource."
Well, that would sure be nice. And I speak from personal experience, because I visited Martins Beach twice this summer on a tour marking the 40-year anniversary of the Coastal Act, the prevailing law on preserving the coast and maximizing public access to it. It's a brilliant document, initiated by the will of voters who believed too much of their coast was being walled off to the public, and Khosla seems to have enjoyed spitting all over it.
Martins Beach is a lovely cove framed on the north side by Shark Tooth Rock, a striking formation that catches rolling waves and sprays them skyward. Well into the last century, surfers, fishermen and swimmers paid the previous owners small fee to drive down the incline and park near the water's edge.
But Khosla, who bought the sprawling slice of paradise for $32 million in 2008, argued that beach erosion and insurance liabilities made it necessary to end the party, and besides, the number of visitors had dropped off dramatically. He began locking a gate, running afoul of the California Coastal Commission, which said he didn't get the required permit.
This week, by the way, the Coastal Commission will begin imposing fines as high as $11,250 on private land owners who deny public access to beaches. It's too bad that Khosla didn't get slapped like that beginning several years ago. Even for a billionaire, that would sting after a while. Better yet, if his gate was deemed a violation, it should have been ripped down and hauled away.
Khosla's 89-acre spread isn't the only privately owned property on the California coast. But private property or not, the public has a right to frolic on wet sand, and where there's a history of public access, it can't be denied without cause.
At one point this summer, I flew north and drove to Khosla's office near Stanford University to hear his argument for kicking sand in the face of people trying to enjoy Martins Beach. He told me he'd talk if the conversation was not for publication, partly because of the lawsuits in play. That was his non-negotiable offer, he said, and by the way, he was a busy man, so I could take it or leave it.
I left it.
Tuesday's Lands Commission decision followed two years of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a purchase price for a thin, fractional slice of Khosla's property to allow for a public access trail. The state offered $360,000, but Khosla slapped taxpayers in the face by demanding $30 million.
Tuesday's decision to investigate the use of eminent domain was cheered by State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who has introduced legislation to secure funding for the purchase of enough land to build a trail.
"When you look at the estimated cost of $360,000, even if you tripled that and made it a million or two, the county of San Mateo has said it's willing to contribute and many land trusts are willing to help," said Hill.
Hill said he was thrilled to see that the commission appeared to be moving aggressively against Khosla.
But not everyone saw it that way.
"This is an invitation for another year of delay," said attorney Mark Massara, who worked on a lawsuit filed against Khosla by the Surfrider Foundation.
Newsom, while calling for a strategy to consider eminent domain, didn't rule out the possibility of salvaging a negotiated settlement. It occurred to me, in fact, that talk of eminent domain might have been a ploy to scare Khosla into compromise.
If so, it won't work, said Massara, who has visited Martins Beach for many years and surfed there during one of my visits this past summer.
"It's obvious Vinod is acting in bad faith," he said. "We already know he's not going to cooperate or collaborate."
Massara disputed the Lands Commission claim that it has to get its seagulls in order, develop a plan and consider environmental requirements before initiating eminent domain. If the commission was playing hardball, he said, all of that would have been done by now.
"What are they going to do, do an [environmental impact report] for this? All they're doing is providing a road map for other land owners who want to prevent public access," he said.
Massara said the commission is "being run around the block" by Khosla, and estimated it could cost more tax dollars to study eminent domain than to pay a fair price for the land.
"This is just kicking the can down the beach," he said.
We'll have to wait and see about that.
But not for too long, I hope.
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