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Trial Starts for Billionaire Who Blocked Beach

Scott Lucas | May 9, 2014 | Story Politics

The fight for public access to Martins Beach, which Chris Smith wrote about at length in our April issue, is heating up. The Silicon Valley billionaire who blocked the access road to the public beach after purchasing the real estate is in a San Mateo court this week defending his actions in a case that could subject him to stiff fines and—more critically—regulatory scrutiny.

Vinod Khosla—who after serving as CEO and chairman of Sun Microsystems went on to a career in venture capital—purchased coastal property in San Mateo in 2008 for $37.5 million. The previous owners had encouraged public access through the land to Martins Beach—a destination popular with surfers—by putting up signs and charging only a nominal fee for parking. Soon after buying the property, Khosla locked a gate across the only access road, and in 2013 hired private security guards to patrol the area. He has been involved in several legal disputes since cutting off access.

The state of California defines beaches up to the high-tide line as public resources—but access to those beaches is another matter entirely.

The LA Times quoted a lawyer for Khosla as saying, "Evidence will show that my client never engaged in any development. Access is not development."

Khosla was successful in a separate case decided in October, in which a judge held that the property's tangled history—it dates back to a Spanish land grant—did not provide a right of public access. In that ruling, however, the judge was clear to separate his finding from the question of the authority of the Coastal Commission—which is the crux of the dispute in the present case.

The narrow grounds of the current trial are whether or not Khosla actions constitute "development" under state law, and would be subject to a lengthy regulatory process. Khosla would also be subject to millions in fines were he to lose. The trial is expected to last through next week.

But, as Smith wrote in our story about the controversy, the case has larger stakes: "While this fight doesn’t involve Google buses squatting in Muni stops or luxury condo developers building on the Embarcadero, protesters [...] say that it amounts to the same thing: the de facto privatization of public resources."

Check back for updates as the case develops.

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