Legal Battle Moves from Courtroom to Martins Beach

The legal battle over a controversial piece of land on the Peninsula owned by billionaire investor Vinod Khosla moved from the courtroom to the beach Thursday morning.

For most of the past 100 years, the Martins Beach property, about five miles south of Half Moon Bay, has been open to the public.

The Sun Microsystems co-founder bought the Martins Beach property in 2008 for $37.5 million.

Steven Baugher, who Khosla hired to manage Martins Beach, testified Tuesday in San Mateo County Superior Court that he consulted with his legal team in 2010 before closing a gate and blocking public access to the beach. But Baugher said he never talked to Khosla himself.

The testimony came during the civil trial to determine whether Khosla violated the California Coastal Act.

The California Coastal Act requires property owners to get permits to develop property, but Khosla's lawyers are arguing that closing the gate does not constitute development.

Surfers at the beach Thursday said that the Coastal Act protects their right to access.

Thursday morning, the lawyers involved in the case and San Mateo Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach paid a visit to Martins Beach to take a tour of the property. But it wasn’t Mallach’s idea to come down to the beach; it was Khosla’s attorneys that asked for the judge and lawyers to come and see the property they have been arguing over.

“We want the judge to see that there’s been absolutely no development that’s occurred on the property,” Khosla’s attorney Jeff Essner said.

Khosla, accused of closing off the property, is being sued by the Surfrider Foundation. They want public access restored.

It all boils down to whether you believe, as Surfrider’s lawyers do, that shutting off public access in itself constitutes development.

"[Khosla] is arguing in court that he does not need a permit from the Coastal Commission to close this road, " said Joe Cotchett of the Surfrider Foundation. Khosla's attorneys have argued that no permit is required to simply close a gate that has been in place for decades.

Regardless, Essner says there are other issues that could arise if the beach is reopened to the public.

“There are no available parking spaces that were once used,” he said, “and if cars came down through that gate it would be a health and safety issue for the 50-some odd home owners that are living down there.”

Former Peninsula Congressman Pete McCloskey testified Tuesday that he partied on the beach in 1948 and that the state's Coastal Act provides public access to California beaches.

"It's just a special public thing that shouldn't be invaded by a guy whose wealth gives him arrogance," McCloskey said.

The case should wrap up in the next couple of days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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