It sounds simple. For nearly a decade, the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has been fighting in court to keep the public off a piece of beach that abuts his property on the Pacific Coast. What could be more familiar than another case of rich Californian versus the oceangoing citizenry?
But the first thing you need to understand about this absurd war is that it didn't begin with Mr. Khosla buying a beach house. Just south of Half Moon Bay, Mr. Khosla bought an entire beach village — forming a limited liability company that owned the land beneath about 47 cottages, and a little shop that at one point sold ice cream, and the only viable path to the sand.
The next things to understand are that he bought the place on what he says was a whim, has never spent a single night there, and regrets it enormously.
And the last thing — given that the case has wound itself to the Supreme Court, and could upend one of California's most sacred promises to its citizens — is that Mr. Khosla is willing to keep litigating this for the rest of his life and has about $3 billion to spend on it.
Over the years, successive California titans have come up against the vexing fact that the beach cannot be privatized. The state constitution establishes that property below the mean tide line belongs to the public, and the Coastal Act of 1976 enshrines this, mandating that public access be maximized consistent with (and here is the tricky part) "constitutionally protected rights of private property owners." Mr. Khosla, through his LLC, is being sued by a nonprofit called the Surfrider Foundation over the matter of whether a permit is needed to block the road, and the thrust of his defense is that his property rights are being violated.
If every generation in California gets the beach villain it deserves — if the producer David Geffen's battle in Malibu at the turn of the century epitomized the last, Hollywood-based era of wealth creation — then Mr. Khosla is the sandy antagonist of the digital age.
Mr. Geffen, humiliated in the press and shamed by his community, eventually gave up his fight. But Mr. Khosla, who by cofounding Sun Microsystems cemented his place in history as an inventor of the commercial internet, seems immune to criticism. Almost since the day in 2008 that he bought the 53-acre hillside known as Martin's Beach, he has been in court, enduring attacks from multiple parties and crashing through obstacles using every legal tool available. He is driven by an almost manic belief that things must be done right and must be done fair. And somewhere along the line, the state of California triggered him.
Now, by dint of his character, which ticks all the major boxes of the venture capitalist archetype — aggressive, shameless, obsessive, and optimistic — Mr. Khosla could disrupt the entire California coastal system. The stakes are both enormous and hilariously low.
If he wins, he could reshape the laws that govern 1,100 miles of shore. And if he loses, all he would be forced to do is apply for a permit to change the hours of operation on a single gate. The legal volleys would undoubtedly continue; Californians do not easily give up a good surf spot. But the last person against whom to wage a war of attrition is Vinod Khosla.