Some call it the Witch’s Hat. Other northern Californians have taken to calling the rocky outcrop Shark Tooth, for its jagged point jutting out the water, as if loosened from a giant great white and upturned in the surf.
But whatever the locals have called the formation for a century, it has been a prominent backdrop for generations of families visiting Martins Beach, who used the idyllic waters to surf, fish and learn values of conservation in a getaway near bustling Half Moon Bay.
Then, in 2008, billionaire and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems Vinod Khosla, enriched by investments in Silicon Valley venture capital, paid $US32.5 million for land next to the coast, including the only road to Martins Beach, cutting off access to the beach with a closed gate.
Private security guards roamed the public beach south of San Francisco, tossing out surfers and swimmers found there.
In March 2013, the Surfrider Foundation, which defends public use of coastal lands, filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of his road blockage.
The group argued that Khosla’s failure to obtain a permit modifying access to the beach was a violation of the Coastal Act of 1976, which regulates public use of beaches in the state.
In 2014, the group was successful when a court decided to allow access to the beach.
But Khosla’s management companies, Martins Beach 1 and Martins Beach 2, appealed.
Last Thursday, Khosla learnt not to mess with the surfers, when a three-judge panel of the California 1st District Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, upholding the lower court’s decision.
“This is not simply a win for surfers in San Mateo County,” Surfrider Foundation legal director Angela Howe told The Washington Post.
“This is a win for all of the beachgoing public that wish to enjoy California’s beautiful 1100-mile [1770-kilometre] coastline.”
The decision struck a blow for public-use activists in the state – and sent a message to the growing issue of wealthy individuals transforming the coastline into private land, said Eric Buescher, a lawyer on the team representing Surfrider.
“The decision is an important step to vindicate the principle that the public has a right to access the California coast regardless of their wealth and resources,” Buescher said, calling the gate and use of guards a “de facto privatisation of what is an incredibly valuable public resource”.
The court also ordered Khosla to pay nearly $US500,000 in attorney costs.
Howe said the beach was the kind of place where families had potato sack races and raised children to treasure public conservation. The serene waves are cherished by surfers and sea lions and seabirds call it home.
“It has a special place in the heart of the community,” she said.
The suit came after community members and Surfriders sought an amicable solution, Howe and Buescher said. Protests and letter-writing campaigns to apply public pressure failed. The situation escalated in October 2012, when the San Mateo County sheriff cited a group of five surfers on the beach for trespassing. The charges were dropped in 2013.
In 2014, the state lands commission sought to end the legal battle by paying to create road or sidewalk access to the beach on Khosla’s property, or to use a portion of the road. Surveyors estimated a price of $US300,000. Khosla countered with an offer of about $US30 million.
“The owner was not interested in good-faith negotiation based on that initial demand,” Buescher said. The government even considered using eminent domain as a last resort to take access back.
Buescher said the defence team’s arguments centred on Khosla’s right to use the property as he wished, but the appeals court agreed that aggressively targeting alleged trespassers and barring access constituted development, which he failed to defend with a permit. A 2016 letter from Khosla’s lawyer claimed the area was in disrepair and use was declining for years.
As of Friday morning, the gate was still barring access to the road, according to a local news affiliate.
While local conservationists are celebrating the win, Khosla could still challenge the decision all the way to the US Supreme Court.
“We’ll go every step of the way. This is important not just to this beach but the state of California,” Buescher said.
An email seeking comment on the decision sent to Khosla Ventures, the investment firm created by Khosla, went unanswered on Friday.
His firm’s site says the company looks to correct problems with technology.
“We seek out unfair advantages,” the company says.
The Washington Post