In a significant win for beach access rights in California, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a Silicon Valley billionaire’s appeal to keep a beach to himself.
The decision caps an all-out legal battle over a small stretch of sand in San Mateo County known as Martins Beach. What began as a local dispute over a locked gate has exploded into a cause célèbre for beachgoers across California. The decade-long squabble spurred a spate of lawsuits that zeroed in on whether property owner Vinod Khosla needs state permission to gate off the road.
A string of California courts has said he does. If Khosla’s last-shot appeal had been granted, his arguments before the nation’s highest court could have dismantled a landmark state law that declares that access to the beach is a fundamental right guaranteed to everyone.
“The most conservative and divided Supreme Court in my lifetime confirmed that even a billionaire, who refuses to acknowledge that the law applies to him, and retains the most expensive attorneys he can find, cannot create a private beach,” said Joseph Cotchett, lead attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which sued Khosla. “Beaches are public in California, and the immensely wealthy must comply with the Coastal Act just like everyone else.”
Dori Yob Kilmer, an attorney for Khosla, said in a statement that the case was not about public beach access but about private property rights.
“We are disappointed the United States Supreme Court decided not to hear this important case. ... 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,” she said.
In an interview with The Times earlier this year, Khosla said that he believed in the Coastal Act, but fighting this case all the way to the Supreme Court was a matter of principle for him.
“My view is: Absolutely we should increase coastal access when we can, but we should also protect private property rights,” he said. “This is about principle. Reasonableness is all I ask for.”
The battle over access at Martins Beach dates to 2008, when Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, bought the 89-acre property south of Half Moon Bay for $32.5 million.
The Deeney family that sold Martins Beach had, for almost a century, maintained a public bathroom, parking lot, even a general store. Surfers, fishermen and picnickers paid 25 cents to enter. The fee eventually went up to $10.
Khosla, in legal filings, said he "was willing to give the business a go, and continued to allow members of the public to access the property upon payment of a fee. But [he] soon faced the same problem the Deeneys had faced: The business was operating at a considerable loss, as the costs of keeping the beach, the parking lot and other facilities in operable and safe condition significantly exceeded the fees the business generated."
So he shut the gate, hired security and posted “do not enter” signs.
A number of public interest groups have since sued Khosla. He, in turn, has sued the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission and San Mateo County, over what he considered an interference of his property rights.
A San Mateo County Superior Court judge, however, dismissed Khosla’s case, stating that he had to go through the commission's permit process or enforcement proceedings before he could resort to a lawsuit.
The latest case began when Surfrider sued Khosla on the grounds that he failed to apply for the development permit required to change public access to the coastline. A local court sided with Surfrider and a state appeals court upheld that decision, ordering Khosla to unlock the gate while the dispute continues. Khosla appealed again to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Unwilling to back down, Khosla appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. His argument not only challenged the constitutionality of the Coastal Act — if taken up by the nation’s highest court, it would’ve put into question long-established land-use procedures and any state's power to regulate development anywhere, experts said.
In his petition, Khosla’s legal team described California's coastal policies as “Orwellian” and made the case that private property should not be taken for public use without just compensation: "the Coastal Act cannot constitutionally be applied to compel uncompensated physical invasions of private property."
His chances were slim — of the thousands of appeals filed each year, only about 100 are granted review. But he hired Paul Clement, a lawyer uniquely suited to overcoming the odds and presenting this argument before the nation's nine top justices. Clement’s accolades include serving as U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush and clerking for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. He has “argued more Supreme Court cases since 2000 than any lawyer in or out of government,” according to his professional bio at Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
And with conservative interpretations of property rights gaining prominence and President Trump's appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch — and possibly another conservative appointment on the way — legal experts had said that having the right lawyer and a well-crafted argument could have been enough to capture the attention of the justices.
Briefs supporting Khosla — filed by a number of property interests groups, including the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Institute for Justice — laid out the key conservative arguments that would have been scrutinized by the highest court.
The California Assn. of Realtors and National Assn. of Realtors, urging the Supreme Court to take the case, said they were concerned that “this violation of the Takings Clause will encourage the California Coastal Commission to impose similar unconstitutional controls over the large number of properties located along the California coast, and will also encourage similar restrictions on landowners by other government agencies throughout the United States.”
“The California courts have unconstitutionally compelled Petitioner to open his private property to the public indefinitely and continue operating a money-losing business providing public access to Martins Beach,” the realtors wrote in an amicus brief.
The California Business Properties Assn. added that if Khosla lost, the decision would have “significant consequences for commercial real estate.”
“The right to exclude is a fundamental premise that underlies private ownership and affects every owner’s ability to control their properties in fundamental ways,” the group wrote in a separate amicus brief.
In the statement Monday, Khosla’s legal team said they will comply with the state courts and now begin the permit process.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
Surfrider celebrated the news this week and said it will continue fighting for beach access.
“The Surfrider Foundation fights to preserve the rights of the many from becoming the assets of the few,” said Angela Howe, the organization’s legal director. “We are protecting everyone’s right to visit, enjoy and protect the beach, regardless of race, socio-economic class or residential location.”
Eric Buescher, one of Surfrider’s attorneys, said that the Supreme Court’s action Monday speaks volumes to California’s coastal access law.
“This lawsuit began as a modest claim that the Coastal Act’s permit requirements apply to everyone. It grew into a fight over the future of public access along over 1,100 miles of coast in this state,” he said. “We’re grateful the California Coastal Act’s promise that the beach cannot be bought, but instead belongs to the public, has survived a billionaire’s whims which risked gutting the statute’s protections.”