“The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.”

Unfortunately, this famous warning from former California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas has never rang more true. That’s because one Silicon Valley billionaire has decided he wants a popular beach in San Mateo County all to himself, and he’s willing to go to the United States Supreme Court to get his way.

Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has been engaged in a legal battle to wrestle away public access to Martins Beach since he purchased an 89-acre estate overlooking the beach for $32.5 million in 2008. The dispute began over a locked gate but over the past decade, has morphed into a challenge on the constitutionality of California Coastal Act and the state’s right to protect public access to the Golden State’s magnificent coastline.

It’s the type of case that has the potential to create far-reaching and devastating implications for paddlers, surfers, and beach-goers in general.

“It’s bold, it’s arrogant, it wants to strike at the core of our society,” said Joe Cotchett, lead attorney for the Surfrider Foundation. “This is so much bigger than a little beach in San Mateo County. It’s a steppingstone to every coastline in the United States.”

Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Essentially, Khosla wants to block a path that has been used by the public to access Martins Beach since the 1920s. While Khosla argues that he should not need state permission to gate off the road, California courts have repeatedly struck down this argument.

Khosla hired top attorney Paul Clement to make his plea to the highest court in the country. But they aren’t just arguing about a gate, their 151-page petition calls California’s coastal policies “Orwellian” and claims that, “the Coastal Act cannot constitutionally be applied to compel uncompensated physical invasions of private property.”

The US Supreme Court is currently deciding whether to accept the case–this requires the votes of four justices–but legal scholars claim the petition is aimed at persuading conservative justices to vote in favor of allowing the case to proceed. Time will tell whether this strategy ultimately works, but our access to public beaches perilously hangs in the balance.

Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

However, the US Supreme Court has ruled against the Coastal Commission in the past. In 1987, Nollan vs. California Coastal Commission resulted in a decision that favored property owners, claiming the agency had gone too far in requiring a California couple to allow public access to the beach adjacent to their property in exchange for a permit to enlarge the home.

If Khosla manages to pull off a repeat of the Nollan decision, the coastline may look very different for future generations.

“Nollan had a catalytic effect, and I expect any decision in the Martins Beach case would have a similar sweeping and catalytic effect on public access law and property rights more generally,” Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at UC Davis told the LA Times. “It’s one of those landmark foundational cases that is cited all the time throughout the nation and has prompted more litigation.”


More issues involving the California Coastal Commission.