Beaches are a public trust, not reserved solely for billionaires

Julie Graves calls for public access to Martins Beach at a meeting Tuesday of the State Lands Commission.
Julie Graves calls for public access to Martins Beach at a meeting Tuesday of the State Lands Commission. The Associated Press

The California State Lands Commission, an obscure state entity, took a bold step this week in confronting Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla over a beachfront property he owns on the San Mateo County coast.

The commissioners – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Controller Betty Yee and a representative of the Department of Finance – had little choice if they were to remain true to the California ethos that this state’s magnificent beaches belong to us all.

Khosla, a venture capitalist, owns the land above Martins Beach, including the access road to the lovely and rugged slice of San Mateo County coast. And Khosla feels put upon by San Mateo County and state agencies. He sued many of them, including State Lands Commission members by name, in September and enumerated several instances he characterizes as government harassment.

And though he had said he would be willing to allow some access, Khosla is at an impasse with state and San Mateo County officials over the terms, and that’s unfortunate. There ought to be compromise.

The California State Lands Commission’s staff concluded after months of negotiations that Khosla “is not interested in selling an easement” to the state so it could provide access to the beach, a staff report says. And so commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to take the beginning steps toward invoking eminent domain to take possession of the land, at a cost to be determined later.

“We are not backing off,” Newsom said at the hearing attended by perhaps 100 people, most of them advocates for beach access. Newsom also made clear that he hopes for a settlement, and that would be wise.

The potential cost of the easement, 6.39 acres, ought to give policymakers pause. The commission staff pegs the cost of seizing the land in question at $360,000. Khosla’s lawyers have put the price at $30 million. Nice though the beach is, legislators would need to balance the cost and the amount of use the beach would get against other priorities.

Some years ago, the state Parks Department declined to purchase Martins Beach, concluding it was not ideal for use as a state beach. That suggests the money, whatever the amount might be, could be better spent buying property that would be more heavily used.

More ominous is Khosla’s threat to press his suit invoking the U.S. Constitution in a challenge against the state’s authority to insist that he provide beach access. California might win. Then again, the U.S. Supreme Court, filled by an appointee of President-elect Donald Trump, a real estate mogul, might conclude that a wealthy property owners’ claim is paramount, and issue a ruling that would restrict access to other beaches.

Khosla, who invests in green energy companies that lobby in Sacramento for state subsidies, claims to be environmentally sensitive. He clearly likes to think of himself as public-spirited too, and in the past, he has been. Even if some judge finds that he is the one Californian who needn’t share his piece of the coastline, does he really want to be that guy?

He ought to understand that no one owns the space where the ocean meets the sand, and that California is not like some Eastern states, New York among them, where access to some of the best beaches is unduly restricted.

We Californians view our ability to get to the ocean as a fundamental right. Beaches are held in a public trust, for use by everyone, billionaires and working people alike.