Coastal Commission begins crackdown against tech billionaire

In a significant move that could result in Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla being hit with tens of millions of dollars in penalties, the California Coastal Commission has begun an enforcement action against Khosla for his refusal to open Martins Beach, along the San Mateo County coast, to the public.

The commission sent Khosla, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a letter late last week charging that he committed “numerous and significant violations of the California Coastal Act” back to 2009 after he purchased a beachfront property south of Half Moon Bay, and locked the gate to a beach that had been enjoyed by families since the 1920s.

Under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, the commission can fine Khosla up to $11,250 per day — or $4.1 million per year — up to five years for blocking access to the beach.

The letter the commission sent to Khosla names at least five potential violations, and potentially several more. He also could face additional penalties of $15,000 a day — or $5.47 million a year — for up to three years, from a court, and could have liens placed on the property if he refuses to pay.

The commission’s action gives Khosla until Oct. 4 to respond, and says that the decision to issue a cease and desist order, with penalties, could be made as soon as the commission’s next board meeting in November in Bodega Bay.

“Martins Beach is a really popular beach,” said Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement at the Coastal Commission. “It’s historically been a family resource for people from all over California, for fishing, picnics and cultural activities. It has been a gathering spot for generations.”

“Every single access point matters to us,” she said. “As the population grows, there is no more coast. Every single access point is important. But this one in particular is a real rallying point for a large number people.”

Khosla’s attorneys, Jeffrey Essner and Dori Yob of San Jose, did not respond to a request for comment.

Martins Beach remains padlocked, but sheriff’s officials have said they will not cite any one for trespassing following a court decision requiring it to be opened. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Advocates for opening the beach again said they were pleased at the coastal commission’s crackdown.

“I’m gratified that our institutions are doing what they were put there for, and not being bullied into letting this one slide,” said Mike Wallace, an economist in Moss Beach and coach of the surf team at Half Moon Bay High School. “This is a litmus test for a cascade of similar events up and down the coast if it wasn’t enforced. I applaud the commission for doing this.”

Haage said that the coastal commission, which first sent Khosla a letter in 2011 saying he was violating state law by closing the private road to the beach, waited to move forward with enforcement until it could see how a key lawsuit played out.

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That lawsuit, filed by the environmental group the Surfrider Foundation, claimed Khosla was violating the Coastal Act, one of California’s landmark environmental laws, because he did not get a permit from the commission to change the public access levels at the beach or for the gate. A lower court agreed, and last month, a state appeals court also ruled against Khosla and required him to open the gate immediately.

On Monday, Khosla appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a bill that would ease the state’s ability to take a public easement over the road by eminent domain cleared the Legislature and is on the governor’s desk. That bill, SB 42, by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would set up a fund in the State Lands Commission that could accept private donations to pay for the easement, which the commission assessed at $360,000. Khosla had told the State Lands Commission he would only consider selling the right for the public to use the road for $30 million, nearly what he paid for the entire 89-acre property in 2008.

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