A judge ruled Wednesday that Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla illegally blocked access to a popular Bay Area beach and must open it to the public.
The news was greeted with excitement by the non-profit Surfrider Foundation and environmentalists involved in the legal fight over Khosla closing public access to Martin's Beach in San Mateo County.
"Today's decision is a huge victory for all of the people of California," said Joe Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, the firm representing Surfrider. "It affirms that great wealth cannot be used to circumvent and ignore the law. Everyone can again visit Martin's Beach."
Khosla and his attorney released a statement Wednesday afternoon expressing disappointment in the court ruling. They added that they will consider their options for an appeal.
Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems, bought the property, located south of Half Moon Bay, for $37.5 million in 2008. At one point, the beach had a sign welcoming the public, but that sign has since been painted over and the public was warned to stay out. According to the lawsuit, the gate to the beach was closed and locked in 2010 to keep the public out. The lawsuit states that since then, at least 100 people were kicked off the property for "trespassing."
When the county told Khosla he needed a coastal permit to close the gate, he never applied for one. His attorneys argued that no permit was required to simply close a gate that was already there. But Surfrider sued Khosla, claiming that he ignored the law. The non-profit contended that Khosla be required to pay the maximum fine of $15,000 per day, which would amount to something in the range of $20 million.
Khosla's attorney argued in court that the Coastal Commission was a run-away regulatory body that was violating Khosla's 5th Amendment property rights. Judge Barbara Mallach of the San Mateo County Superior Court listened to six days of testimony and even visited the beach along with attorneys from both sides.
Mallach ruled Wednesday that Khosla's failure to obtain a Coastal Development Permit before blocking access to the beach was illegal and that a permit was required to close the gate.
Mallach ruled that Khosla should stop preventing the public from accessing and using the water, beach and coast at Martin's Beach until a resolution of his permit application has been reached by San Mateo County or the Coastal Commission.
California's oldest surfer Rob "Birdlegs" Caughlan and other surfers plan to go surfing at Martin's Beach Thursday to celebrate the news.
"Today, the people of California can declare victory in the fight to restore public access to Martin's Beach, said Eric Buescher, another attorney at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy. "Coastal access is a right of all the people of this state. Today's decision affirms that right is more than a hollow promise."
Mallach, however, ruled that Khosla's conduct "was in good faith" and that penalties and fines are not justified.