California officials are battling a Silicon Valley billionaire for public access to a spectacular slice of sand south of San Francisco.
It's the latest in an ongoing fight between the state and its richest residents over choice stretches of beach, a particular problem in the Southern California city of Malibu. But as California's economic center has shifted north, so has the battle over its coast.
This latest round involves Martins Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand totally hidden from the highway.
"For a lot of us, it feels like a little Yosemite of the coast," says Mike Wallace, a surf coach at the local high school. His daughter caught her first wave off of Martins Beach.
All California beaches are, by law, public between the ocean and the high-tide mark. The problem is getting here. Unless you're on a boat, the only way to get to Martins Beach is the road — which has a gate and a big sign that says "Private Property: Keep Out."
For almost a century, the land was owned by a family who charged a small entrance fee to visitors. In 2008, they sold Martins Beach to a new owner for $37 million. Almost immediately, says Wallace, the gate and sign went up.
"No one knew quite what the status was," he says. "They weren't sure who the owners were."
Eventually, they figured it out: Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Khosla wouldn't comment for this story, and his lawyers declined to answer questions.
With his background in solar power and biofuels, Khosla — who recently promoted one of his clean energy ventures on 60 Minutes — isn't the kind of person you'd expect to find in a showdown with environmentalists.
"Even billionaires with a solid track record of conservation efforts, taking coastal property and trying to privatize it — people generally are not willing to allow that to happen," says Mark Massara, a longtime surfer and a lawyer involved in one of several lawsuits filed over Martins Beach.
He and others point out that people have been coming to Martins Beach for decades. They say amenities like public bathrooms, an old cafe and a parking lot set a precedent of access.
Massara says if Khosla wins this fight, he won't be the last one. "Make no mistake that if the beach is allowed to be privatized in this case, it will inspire other efforts by other wealthy individuals."
Nancy Cave of the California Coastal Commission — the state agency whose job it is to keep beaches open to the public — says the group wrote to Khosla asking if he wanted to resolve the issue. Maybe, she thought, something could get worked out. After all, Khosla is going to need permits if he wants to develop the property — and he's going to have to get them from her office.
The group did meet with Khosla's attorneys. "They showed no interest in resolving," says Cave. "They only wanted to litigate."
She and her colleagues say they know how quickly a billionaire can strain the legal resources of a small and chronically underfunded state agency like hers — but they're steeling themselves for a long fight.
Meanwhile, the most recent lawsuit could go to trial in the spring.