The only road that leads to Martins Beach is on property owned by tech billionaire Vinod Khosla. Last week, the California Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Khosla saying he has been “improperly and illegally” restricting public access.
When Khosla bought the property in 2008 he initially kept the gate locked. In 2013, he was sued for limiting access without a permit. Since then, he has kept the gate open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., charging a $10 fee to use the road. Now, the California Coastal Commission wants him to remove the no trespassing signs and take the gate out altogether.
An early morning drive from San Francisco to Martins Beach is nothing short of epic. You drive along the massive cliffs that tower above Grey Whale Cove, then you pass Montara Beach, where the highway winds through a grove of tall trees and shoots you out into sprawling farmland and open fields.
The turn off for Martins Beach comes abruptly. I park on the dirt lot next to the paved road that leads a little less than half a mile down to the beach.
That's where I meet Edmundo Larenas.
Larenas is the co-founder of the San Mateo County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. The foundation sued Vinod Khosla back in 2013 for limiting public access to Martins Beach without applying for a permit. Khosla locked the gate. He occasionally reopened it last year after the California Coastal Commission threatened to fine him $11,000 a day for violating the Coastal Act.
“I would say the gate never really opened back up,” Larenas says. “We’re walking through here, but it's random. And the reason that's important is because if you spend time to drive here you won't be able to come here and have a guarantee that the gate is going to be open.”
Khosla bought these 89 acres surrounding Martins Beach in 2008. He often keeps the gate to the only road to the beach closed, but that hasn't stopped folks like Larenas from enjoying this piece of the coast.
The tall bluffs on either side of Martins Beach frame the seemingly endless blue ocean. It feels like you’re standing on the edge of the earth. The road snakes down into a small neighborhood of cottages above the beach. Khosla owns it all.
“So check this out,” Larenas says. “As you walk along here, you're going to see the iconic shark fin rock here, right to the north of the beach. There it is. Tell me that's not worth protecting, huh?”
It is beautiful, but get this: Khosla almost never sees it. He told the New York Times he hasn't spent a night at Martins Beach and said he regrets buying the land in the first place.
“And so, like, Mr. Khosla bought this property in order to close that gate,” Larenas says. “According to the Coastal Act, any change in use is considered development. And any development if you're in the coastal zone needs the coastal development permit. And he never applied for it. In fact, he basically said, ‘Well, sue me.’”
Khosla declined to talk with me, but in an interview with Bloomberg news, Khosla said, “It's about property rights and about a set of people who want to use coercion. In fact, they told me they'd like to embarrass me into giving up my rights. Well, if you have a belief system, even though it’s unpopular, even though the press knocks you for it, you wanna live by your principles. Whether it’s that, or protecting private property rights and fighting for what the law is. And when it's not clear — and there are some things that are not clear in the law — it’s important to get them legally resolved.”
The history of access to Martins Beach
The road down to Martins Beach hasn’t always been contentious. In fact, it used to be quite inviting. There was once a huge red sign along Highway 1 that pointed out Martins Beach to passersby.
The local Deeney family bought the property in the early 1900s. A few decades later, they leased it to another family who began allowing visitors down to the beach for a small fee. The Deeney family continued that tradition when they took the property over again in the 90s.
To bring that passage back, now, the State Lands Commission is considering buying the access road from Khosla. He said he’d only sell it for $30 million. That’s nearly the amount he bought the entire property for.
Some local residents are wary that if the road were open permanently, the public would fall short of keeping their prized beach pristine. Local business owner Brian Overfelt says he’s seen mounds of trash at Tunitas Creek, a San Mateo County beach just south of Martins Beach.
Overfelt owns the Old Princeton Landing Public House & Grill in Half Moon Bay and has lived in the area since he was three. He says he wasn't even mad when Khosla closed the gate in the first place. It gave him a greater appreciation for the time he spent down there with the Deeney family.
“My favorite memory ever was, I just got done surfing all afternoon — I was all surfed out, I was salty — and I was sitting with Jimmy Deeney of the Deeney family that sold the property to the Khouslas,” Overfelt says. “We're drinking cold beer, and I just surfed all day, and I go, ‘This is like the most amazing thing ever.’ When all that went away because the Deeney's left or sold the property, that was the signal of an end of a beautiful era. I wasn’t angry that the gate was closed.”
Today, the little cafe that used to sell burgers and beer is boarded up and shut down. It’s another reminder the era that Overfelt remembered so fondly is over. But, the legal battle over this beach goes on.
Khosla’s determination to get his way isn't anything new for the California Coastal Commission. It has levied millions of dollars in fines on Malibu homeowners for trying to block off public access to their beachside property. The big difference in this case is that Khosla doesn't live at Martins Beach. His endurance to fight this battle is entrenched in the principle of private property rights, and he’s willing to make it as hard as possible for the Coastal Commission to take that away from him.
This story originally aired in October 2018.