Surfers win out over billionaire in California beach ruling

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has been locked in a land dispute with surfers and local residents over his blocking access to a stretch of beach in northern California. For now, things aren't going the billionaire's way. 

Stephen Lam/Reuters
Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (c.) exits San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City, Calif., May 12, 2014, after testifying over an ongoing legal battle over public access to Martins Beach, a property which he purchased and subsequently closed the only access road to the private property. Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and now a prominent venture capitalist, lost a court battle on September 24, 2014 against a coastal protection group that sued the billionaire for closing access to the northern California beach, court records show.

Surf's up, bro. But maybe not if you're Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

In a David-and-Goliath-type standoff, the tech billionaire, who owns land that includes access to a northern California beach, had drawn heated criticism for blocking that access. On Wednesday, he lost a court battle over this coveted sector of coastal land.

In what's being called a landmark case, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach ruled that Mr. Khosla, who was sued by the coastal protection group Surfrider Foundation, did not obtain the requisite permit to block access to the land. 

As a result, Khosla must now reopen the gate to Martins Beach, a popular spot with locals located near Half Moon Bay. A co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Khosla purchased the land in 2008 for $32.5 million. In 2010, he blocked access by closing the only public gate to the beach. He even hired guards to keep people out. 

The move outraged community members, as previous owners had let local residents access the beach, sometimes for a fee. The Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit, sued Khosla last year on the grounds that this stretch of beach had been open to the public for nearly a hundred years and should stay that way.

Judge Mallach ruled that Khosla's acts violated the California Coastal Act of 1976, which says the state's coastal areas are an important public good to all people. Should Khosla wish to close the gate at any time in the future, Mallach ruled, he must apply for what's called a coastal development permit, meaning the gate would be closed while he makes changes to his property.

Although Mallach could have fined Khosla for his violation, the fines were waived, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. 

For his part, Khosla has argued that there is little interest in the beach among local residents and that activists have "misrepresented the issues and facts." 

But for now at least, the locals seem to have won. 

"It's a fabulous victory for the people of California because now their coast is safe," Joseph Cotchett, lead attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, told the Chronicle. "Those people who wanted to roll back the California Coastal Act must now live by the law, and money cannot change that. Mr. Khosla, in the words of President Reagan: Tear down that wall or, in this case, fence." 

But the surfers may not have long to celebrate. In an e-mailed statement, Khosla's lawyer Dori Yob said, "We are disappointed with the court's decision and will consider our options for appealing the ruling." Court records indicate that both sides have 15 days to object to the decision. 

The issue illustrates a growing concern in northern California that the wealth of Silicon Valley is making prime real estate untenable for average people. In some cases, the perception is that the wealthy want to keep others out altogether. 

As Mr. Cotchett put it, according to the Los Angeles Times, this conflict is "between the people who want to use the beaches and the wealthy who want it for their own private purposes." 

The past year has also seen a series of guerrilla protests staged against Google's corporate buses that transport its employees between their San Francisco homes and the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. These protests have tapped into an issue that worries a large number of San Francisco residents: rising housing prices as a result of Silicon Valley wealth pouring into the city. 

Rapid gentrification and housing prices out of reach for anyone not making a six-figure salary are issues for a number of US cities, but they have been highlighted in a marked manner in San Francisco. Hardly any health-care workers, restaurant workers, or police officers can afford to live in the city anymore, the Guardian reported in January.  

 Material from Reuters was used in this report. 

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