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Billionaire says officials instigated fight over Martin's Beach access

Judge will decide whether venture capitalist can bar access to San Mateo County beach
Venture capitalist says he was willing to grant access to Martin's Beach until demands became 'unreasonable'

The venture capitalist at the heart of a battle over a closed beach said Thursday he had intended to allow visitors in for a fee just as the previous owner had — and did so for nearly two years — but changed his mind after county planners and the California Coastal Commission made demands he considered "unreasonable."

"This story is much more about coercion than about getting access — something they don't have a right to," Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, said in an interview.

A civil trial concluded Wednesday in San Mateo County Superior Court that seeks to compel Khosla to apply for a coastal development permit to change the level of public access to the water — and levy millions of dollars in fines against him for not yet doing so.

The judge will rule in the case, which was filed by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, within 90 days.

Khosla took the stand early in the trial but shared little of his point of view. In the interview, however, he expressed anger at what he described as a campaign to publicly pressure him to cede control of his private property.

Khosla's two limited liability companies in 2008 purchased the property south of Half Moon Bay for $32.5 million. The previous owner, the Deeney family, had allowed the public to stroll down the dirt road that provides the only access to Martin's Beach by land, or drive through a gated entrance and park at the bottom for a fee.

Khosla and his lawyers point out that the Deeneys closed the gate at their discretion, in inclement weather and on other occasions. After Khosla purchased the property, he said, his manager raised the parking fees and opted to open the road to the public when the gate could be staffed.

The decision in 2010 to lock it permanently, he said, came after the county sent a letter telling him the access had to be year-round and he could charge only $2 per car.

"The county escalated this conflict," he said. "I think they were looking for a public fight."

San Mateo County planners issue coastal development permits within their jurisdiction. Records show they had already notified Khosla that historic access would need to be maintained or a permit sought to change it. Khosla said he disagreed but chose to allow visitors in for a fee until "the unreasonableness began."

After he locked the gate, the county asked the Coastal Commission in January 2011 to take the lead on enforcement, said former enforcement supervisor Nancy Cave, now district manager for the region. The first interaction had come when the county informed Khosla's property manager that trees planted near the highway and blocking the coastal view required a permit or needed to be removed, Cave said.

But by the time the commission took over as lead enforcer, the access issue had become primary. Further investigation revealed that road and drainage improvements had also been made without a permit, she said.

Khosla says he believes he is being treated unfairly because of his wealth and high profile. After he removed the trees, he said, he gave them to his neighbor, who planted them without consequence. The Deeneys also made improvements to the parking area after winter storms without seeking permits, he said, and were not punished.

"They asked us for things they hadn't asked of anyone else, not the previous owners, not the next-door neighbors," he said. "I feel definitely blackmailed."

Cave responded that neither the county nor the commission has the staff to monitor every property and assume owners are following the law. She also noted that Khosla's staff sought and was granted an emergency permit last year to lay down 700 feet of rock to protect the shoreline road that services private cottages from erosion.

"How could we be blackmailing somebody when we are giving them permits when they apply for them?" she said.

As for the access issue, she said if Khosla would just "apply for the permit … then action would ensue and he could decide what he wants to do in court."

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

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