Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Beach access bill puts Brown in middle of class war

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The Legislature adjourned Aug. 30, but that didn’t mean the lawmaking season was over.

As legislators fled, they left behind hundreds of bills for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign or veto with a Sept. 30 deadline, creating a new arena for conflict.

As governors are wont to do, Brown has singled out certain bills for splashy signing ceremonies at which he and other politicians preen for television cameras – such as last week’s event in Hollywood for a hefty movie industry tax subsidy.

Brown also has amused himself with acerbic veto messages on minor measures. He rejected two bills to require diaper changing stations in men’s restrooms, saying, “At a time when so many have raised concerns about the number of regulations in California, I believe it would be more prudent to leave the matter of diaper changing stations to the private sector.”

And he’s leaving the most controversial measures for the final days of the month, thereby sparking intense efforts by proponents and opponents to influence him.

There’s no shortage of such measures, but none has stirred more public debate, or private lobbying, than Senate Bill 968, whose stated purpose is to gain public access to a small beach in San Mateo County called Martins Beach.

The beach, unlike most of the state’s shoreline, is privately owned, because it dates to a pre-statehood Spanish land grant. For decades, its former owner allowed public access via private road for an entrance fee but after Silicon Valley tycoon Vinod Khosla purchased 53 acres of oceanfront property, including the beach, in 2008, controversy erupted over access.

He closed the road after, he said, local authorities rejected plans to raise fees and make needed improvements to beach facilities. Environmental groups, led by the Surfrider Foundation, and Khosla have battled ever since in court and in the Legislature.

Khosla has prevailed in court, but the Legislature passed SB 968 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, directing the State Lands Commission to negotiate for access, with the power to seize the property through eminent domain should talks fail.

It’s become a cause célèbre for environmentalists and property-rights advocates. Khosla, who has donated heavily to environmental causes, says he’s willing to allow access for a fee but objects to having eminent domain hanging over his head.

Moreover, given what Khosla paid, buying the road and beach would be immensely expensive and public and private conservation agencies had already rejected purchase from the previous owner.

On its merits, the conflict could be, it seems, easily resolved. But the real issue isn’t the beach; there are many others in the area open to the public.

Rather, it’s a symbol of the Bay Area’s burgeoning class conflict over the impact of the techno-wealthy, and Brown’s in the middle.