State exploring eminent domain to force billionaire to open Northern California beach

A view of Martin's Beach, near Half Moon Bay.
A view of Martin’s Beach, near Half Moon Bay.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The California State Lands Commission decided Tuesday to explore condemnation proceedings as a way to gain public access to Martin’s Beach, where landowner and Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla has restricted entry.

If the panel decides to proceed, it will be the first time in the commission’s 78-year history that it has used condemnation rules.

The three-member panel, which oversees the use of state tidelands and marine resources, directed its staff to study the use of eminent domain after two years of negotiations with Khosla to obtain an easement on his property collapsed last month.


“I hope Mr. Khosla hears that we are not backing off,” said Commissioner Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor. “There is a sense this is a new day…. We want to see this damn thing resolved within our lifetimes.”

Access to Martin’s Beach near Half Moon Bay became controversial in 2010, when Khosla limited public entry to the scenic shoreline that adjoins about 89 acres of coastal land he bought for $32 million two years earlier.

His closure of an access road has been viewed as a digression from the practice of the previous owners—the Deeney family — who allowed the public to reach the beach, often for a small fee, for almost 100 years.

How much public access should be granted has been the focus of four lawsuits filed by Khosla, the Surfrider Foundation and Friends of Martin’s Beach. All are pending except for one of Khosla’s two cases, which was dismissed.

The commission staff will now research how to exercise eminent domain, including the costs, the resources needed, the time it would take and possible effects on the latest lawsuit Khosla filed against the commission, individual commissioners and San Mateo County.

This is going to be resolved in favor of the people of California.

— Lands Commission chair Betty Yee

“This is going to be resolved in favor of the people of California,” said commission chair Betty Yee, the state controller. “I am confident of that.”

Both Newsom and Yee said the effort to explore condemnation proceedings does not close the door to further negotiations, and they urged Khosla to resume talks with the state.

Discussions that had been authorized under legislation by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, broke off in November after Khosla demanded either $30 million for an easement or an agreement to provide limited access based on a count of beach visitors provided in 2008 by Kholsa’s own employees or contractors.

Commission negotiators questioned the accuracy of the figures, and Khosla disagreed with the state’s estimated value of $360,000 for the 6.4 acres sought for an easement.

Mark Massara, an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which has been trying to regain public access to Martin’s Beach, said the commission should already be prepared to move on condemnation proceedings.

“The time for action is now. Eminent domain should not be delayed any longer,” Massara said. “It’s apparent that Vinod is acting in bad faith and will not collaborate. A three-foot wide access way to the beach represents only a minimal impact on his 89 acre property.”

This controversy was manufactured by the media and became fodder for politicians.

— Jeffrey Essner, attorney for Vinod Khosla

During the public hearing, about 20 people, including former Congressman Pete McCloskey and members of environmental groups, spoke in favor of using eminent domain to gain public access to Martin’s Beach.

“The right of access is meaningless if the wealthy can buy coastal property and close it to the public,” said Ron Romines, a former mayor of Woodside. “This threatens a precedent that goes well beyond Martin’s Beach.”

Two speakers defended Khosla, including his attorney, Jeffrey Essner, who said his client does not want to surrender his property rights and that the public has no constitutional right of access to Martin’s Beach.

“This controversy was manufactured by the media and became fodder for politicians,” he said. “There is a false sense that there is a strong demand for Martin’s Beach access.”

He added that the state could end up wasting tens of millions of dollars to obtain an easement.


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