A slim stretch of soft sand 35 miles south of San Francisco off Highway 1, Martins Beach is popular with surfers, but few others. Vacation rental cabins stand in weathered tiers on the steep cliffside, above a long-closed bar and restaurant. Reviews call it, in turns, "a shanty town," "a shadow of its former self," "depressing," "surreal." It seems an unlikely battleground for one of the most passionate legal land battles in California, featuring a tech mogul versus the state.
Reviews call it, in turns, "a shanty town," "a shadow of its former self," "depressing," "surreal."
Billionaire Sun Microsystems co-founder and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla bought Martins Beach in 2008, and closed it to the public in 2010. The beach's popularity had waned in recent years, he said, and he aimed to preserve it. The California Coastal Commission and Surfrider Foundation sued, claiming that Khosla violated a state law that makes all beachfront public. Over the last half of 2014, a judge ordered Khosla to open the beach, and Governor Jerry Brown signed one bill allowing fines against private property owners who do not allow public access to the waterfront and another "requiring the State Lands Commission to negotiate public access to the shoreline at Martins Beach." Khosla, for his part, has vowed to fight on, accusing Surfrider and the Coastal Commission of a variety of bad behavior, including "class warfare." As he told the San Jose Mercury News:
For the past year, a locked-up Martins Beach has served as a picturesque symbol of the entitlement of new tech money in a region growing ever-more unequal. Californians take their beaches seriously: Where local governments in the Bay Area have often capitulated to, if not welcomed, tech investment into public resources, this time they fought back. But it's not totally clear whether Khosla is an outlier, a vanguard, or a truly representative caricature of tech wealth and its intent to privatize resources once in the public realm.
Rich people buying pretty land is a story as old as California. Robber barons got away with much more in a time before Twitter, but Khosla is the latest in a long tradition. He won his first court case on the grounds that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and ceded California to the United States, provided for no public access on private property, full-stop.
The 1976 California Coastal Act might have made all beaches state-owned, but many coastal property owners might sympathize with Khosla. In Southern California, homeowners tend to be more cunning in their attempts to limit people's access to public land, disguising easements with shrubs, threatening signage, and even fake garage doors.
Khosla has insisted that he had to break the rules, to defend his individual property rights against an over-regulating government. This sounds much like the arguments we've heard from Uber founder Travis Kalanick and other tech moguls.
But Khosla, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, does not appear to want Martins as his own beachfront romp or as a profitable business. On a recent visit, the property manager guarding the $10 parking lot tells me only four or five cars arrive per day—"It's not a money-maker, trust me." The spirit of the beach closure, Khosla has said, was to preserve the natural environment. In many ways, this is not so different from California's own preservationist impulses, which tightly regulate public land use and boot private companies from state parks. If he had gone about it differently, Khosla might have won.
Money is money is money. It usually gets its way, or at least it expects to. In other places, it is often older and more experienced at navigating society and politics. It is new in California, when it comes from the technology industry, but that doesn't necessarily make that wealth uniquely malicious. It just may make it uniquely clueless.