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California officials sue billionaire over access to beach

Suing for beach access

California officials are suing a billionaire who has been fighting for more than a decade to keep a secluded beach to himself, a move designed to ensure that the public always has access to the scenic stretch of sand.

The lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of the California State Lands Commission and Coastal Commission seeks a court order demanding that Vinod Khosla remove all gates and signs on or near the only road to the beach that runs through his private property.

The lawsuit contends that without court orders, Khosla will keep imposing improper restrictions to public access to Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay, about 35 miles (56 kilometres) south of San Francisco.

“This case goes to the heart of California’s public access mandate,” California Coastal Commission Chairman Steve Padilla said in a statement. ”We cannot allow this to be chipped away each time someone purchases beachfront property — it’s a dangerous precedent for the future of public access in California."

The dispute is one of several in California over who is allowed to use the coastline, which is often accessed through neighbourhoods and private property. The state Constitution guarantees public access to all beaches below the high tide line.

This legal battle dates to 2008, when Khosla — a venture capitalist who co-founded the Silicon Valley technology company Sun Microsystems — bought an 89-acre coastal property for $32.5 million and closed a gate, put up a no-access sign and painted over a billboard at the entrance that had advertised access to the beach.

The previous owners had allowed public access to the beach for a fee. Khosla's attorneys said the cost to maintain the beach and other facilities far exceeded the money the fees brought in.

The non-profit Surfrider Foundation sued, and a state appeals court ruled that Khosla needed to apply for a coastal development permit before closing off the main road.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2018, Khosla continued to sue over what he considers to be interference with his property rights. In the meantime, his lawyer said he kept the road open during daylight hours to paying visitors. State officials say the gate to the road has not been consistently open.

Last month, a state appeals court sided with Khosla, who argued that just because the former owners gave people permission to use the road and beach, it doesn't mean the public gets a permanent right to use the property.

The lawsuit by the state agencies contends that because the beach has been used by the public for more than a century, it has acquired access rights under a common law doctrine known as “implied dedication."

“For as far back as can be historically documented, the public has used and treated the beach as a public beach, and the previous owners knew of that public use and did not interfere with such use,” the lawsuit said.

Khosla's attorney vowed to fight the latest lawsuit.

“Since the property was purchased by our client, the state, and small activist groups, have endeavoured to seize our client’s private property without compensation,” Dori Yob Kilmer said in a statement. “While such tactics are commonplace in communist systems, they have never been tolerated in the American system where the U.S. Constitution precludes the government from simply taking private property and giving it to the public.”

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This story has been corrected to show that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Khosla's appeal in 2018, not the state Supreme Court.



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