Supreme Court won't hear case over California beach access, surfers declare victory

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The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from a California billionaire who doesn't want to open a road on his property so that the public can access a beach, a move that surfers and beach goers declared a victory as they have fought for years to make sure this stretch of sand and sea be open to the public. 

The justices said that they will not take up Vinod Khosla's appeal of a California appeals court decision. The case had the potential to upend California's longstanding efforts to keep beaches open to the public.

Khosla bought the property in the San Francisco Bay Area for $32.5 million in 2008 and later blocked the public from accessing it. That prompted a lawsuit by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation.

A state appeals court ruled last year that Khosla needed to apply for a coastal development permit before denying public access.

Khosla - a venture capitalist who co-founded the Silicon Valley technology company, Sun Microsystems - closed a gate, put up a no-access sign and painted over a billboard at the entrance to the property that had advertised access to the beach, according to the appellate ruling.

The secluded beach south of Half Moon Bay, about 35 miles south of San Francisco, is only accessible by a road that goes over Khosla's land.

"This win helps to secure beach access for all people, as is enshrined in our laws," said Angela Howe, legal director of the foundation. "The Surfrider Foundation will always fight to preserve the rights of the many from becoming the assets of the few."

California State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo and Santa Clara counties) on Monday declared the decision not to take up the case a "key victory in the fight to restore public access." He said this was a case of a "Silicon Valley billionaire" who wanted to keep "Martins Beach all to himself." 

Hill added that the state’s 2018-19 budget created the Martins Beach Subaccount within the State Lands Commission’s Kapiloff Land Bank Fund in order to facilitate acquisition of a right-of-way. At the same time, the state authorized the fund to transfer as much as $1 million to the new subaccount, which can accept public and private donations to create public access to Martins Beach and along its shoreline. Money in the subaccount can be used to acquire a public right-of-way or easement and for costs associated with acquisition, including environmental studies, analyses, assessments, associated improvements and maintenance costs.

San Mateo County, Hill said, has indicated a willingness to provide matching funds to the subaccount in order to restore public access to Martins Beach.

The previous owners of the property allowed public access to the beach for a fee. But Khosla's attorneys say the cost to maintain the beach and other facilities far exceeded revenue from the fees.

The government cannot demand that people keep their private property open to the public without paying them to do so, Khosla's attorneys said in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state appeals court ruling would "throw private property rights in California into disarray," the appeal argued, saying other property owners along California's coast would prefer to exclude the public.

The Surfrider Foundation said Khosla's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was premature because he had not yet applied for a permit and received a decision from the state.

Dori Yob Kilmer, an attorney for Khosla, said Khosla will now seek a permit from California's Coastal Commission.

"We are disappointed the United States Supreme Court decided not to hear this important case," Yob said in an email to KTVU. "No business owner should be forced to obtain a permit from the government to shut down a private business, to change prices from those that existed in 1972 (as the state has demanded), or to change hours of operation.   No owner of private business should be forced to obtain a permit from the government before deciding who it wants to invite onto its property.  However, we will comply with the decision of the California Court of Appeal and apply for the required permit.  If denied, we will start this process over again."

Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement at the Coastal Commission, said the case reaffirms that property owners cannot unilaterally shut down access to a beach "that has provided generations of families with memories."

"We will be considering how to proceed and hope the owner will work with us to assure that the historical public access to Martin's Beach remains available for present and future generations," she said.