State Pushes Forward in Property Acquisition of Martin's Beach From Tech Billionaire

The state has moved forward Senate Bill 42 to help acquire the trail to Martin's Beach. The new legislation follows a multi-year legal battle between public groups and Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla.

Formerly known for co-founding Sun Microsystems, Khosla has been involved in a highly-publicized legal battle for the last seven years following his purchase of roughly 53-acres of the surrounding coastal property for $37.5 million. In 2010, the trail to the sandy alcove near Half Moon Bay boasted a gate reading "Beach Closed, Keep Out."

The sign and negotiation efforts for public access to the nearly 80-year-old beach has attracted national attention.

The new bill, introduced by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, sets aside a sub-account to accept funding through donations as well as a contribution from San Mateo County, to acquire roughly 6.4 acres of Khosla's estate through eminent domain.

San Mateo County has said that it will finance the acquisition up to $1 million. Jennifer Savage, the California policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation says she hopes the funds will be enough.

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The trail and adjacent parking lot for Martin's Beach has been illegally blocked by Khosla after purchasing the surrounding 89-acres of coastal land. (July 13, 2017)

Previous negotiations between the State Lands Commission (SLC) and Khosla failed, due to disputed estimates of worth. While official estimates for the portion of land was valued at $360,000, Khosla demanded $30 million.

If the acquisition requires more than $1 million, Savage said the sub-account will allow private parties to chip in or hold fundraisers.

"Everyone in California has the right to go to the beach," Savage said. "It’s an equalizer. You can be rich, you can be poor, but you can still dig your toes in the sand."

While just a small beach, Savage says what happens at Martin's Beach affects all Californians and sets a precedent for the state's roughly $40 billion coastal economy.

"Beach access is one of the primary reasons that we exist," Savage said.

The group has been involved in a number of lawsuits against landowners restricting public access to beaches, a move it argues is not only wrong, but against the law.

The Coastal Act of 1976, which ensures the public's right to state-owned beaches, has been one of the arguments the group has used against wealthy landowners whose arguments center around privacy and property rights.

While the Surfrider Foundation won its lawsuit against Khosla, which ordered him to open the gates, access remained tricky. Savage said the last six times she's visited this month, the gate has still been in place.

Khosla has since filed an appeal of the court order and has individual lawsuits against the Coastal Commission and the staff of both San Mateo County and the State Lands Commission.

Savage says she sees the legal battle continuing for many years, but Hill's legislation would move forward eminent domain proceedings.

The bill is expected to be brought to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a vote no sooner than August.

Vinod Khosla's representation was unavailable for comment.

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