We get it that tech billionaire Vinod Khosla is annoyed that local authorities and the Coastal Commission demanded that he allow public access through his 89-acre beachfront property in northern California, continuing a nearly century-long practice of the previous owners. He has battled officials and advocacy groups on this issue for almost a decade, losing more often than not in court after court. But his latest move — petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take up his complaint — is one colossal step too far. Asking the highest court to declare the California Coastal Act unconstitutional doesn’t just threaten a cherished and sound law that establishes the public’s access to its beaches, it could erode efforts to provide that kind of coastal access across the nation.
Khosla’s property in Half Moon Bay offers the only dry land route from Highway 1 to Martins Beach, a secluded but popular stretch of the coastline. Before Khosla bought it in 2008, the previous owners had long offered the public access to the beach for a fee via a private road on the property, as well as providing parking and restrooms. Beachgoers have availed themselves of this access since the 1920s.
Khosla continued these practices for several months, closing the gate to the road intermittently during bad weather — something he says the previous owners had done. But the closures prompted a warning letter from the local San Mateo County authorities. And with that, an ornery dispute over whether he could close the road at all and what he could charge beachgoers escalated into a barrage of lawsuits against county officials, the California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission, as well as lawsuits by public interest groups against Khosla, all of which have landed us at the Supreme Court’s doors.
Now, a coastal zone issue that should have been resolved in discussions between Coastal Commission officials and the property owner has become Khosla’s rallying cry for the rights of private property owners everywhere. Khosla’s attorneys argue that lower court rulings requiring him to apply for a Coastal Commission development permit simply to close his road to the beach represent an unconstitutional “taking” of his private property. More troubling, his lawyers argue that the California Coastal Act is unconstitutional for its “command that a private property owner may not take any action that would impact the ‘intensity’ of the public’s use of or access to the ocean without first obtaining a permit.”
That’s an overly broad (and dramatic) reading of the Coastal Act. In practice, public access is intensely negotiated between the Commission and property owners. Many of the ensuing legal battles are over easements that owners agreed to grant but reneged on later. The complication in Khosla’s case has been whether he must keep open a road that had no official easement on it. The reason he should be compelled to keep it open is because the public has been using it for nearly 100 years. As the commission puts it, the public holds a “prescriptive right” to the road based on that lengthy use — and that should be as legitimate as a recorded easement.
Khosla’s property isn’t being unfairly confiscated just because the courts have told him to keep his road open to the public for a fee. But in trying to prove that his rights are being violated, Khosla is seeking to dismantle a law that, for four decades, has provided reasonable access to California’s beaches along the entire coast to millions of people, vanishingly few of whom can afford to buy houses along the coast.
In fact, the Coastal Act and the Commission’s enforcement of it may be the only thing that has stood between the public’s access to the beach and high-rollers buying enough property to block it off. The idea that Khosla would use his wealth to resolve a dispute about his private road by trying to demolish that law and diminish access to the coast is unconscionable.