Viewpoints: Martins Beach property rights fight affects us all

Environmentalists and public officials are putting the screws to Vinod Khosla.

Through legally dubious power plays, they’re trying to force this wealthy venture capitalist to open up some of his coastal acreage in San Mateo County for public access, against his will.

Should the rest of us care about one billionaire’s struggle to protect his property rights?

After all, the average Californian might find it hard to relate to someone like Khosla, a Silicon Valley titan who in 2008 paid a hefty sum to purchase 53 acres of beautiful oceanfront property in San Mateo County, including popular Martins Beach.

And Khosla has alienated people on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Despite his support for “green” initiatives, environmentalists are seething because he closed the road across his property that prior owners had allowed the public to use in order to access Martins Beach.

This was after he was unable to get county approval to raise the visitor fee and make improvements to aging beach facilities.

Conservatives and libertarians, meanwhile, take issue with his active support for the state’s onerous cap-and-trade program, which is draining billions of dollars from the economy and is about to impose a gasoline price hike that will hurt the poorest Californians most.

So again, why care about Khosla and his struggle to protect his property rights?

Because no one’s rights exist in a vacuum. All of us are affected by how any of us is treated by the government. In fact, it’s property owners of limited means who have the most to lose if the coercing of Khosla succeeds. If a wealthy and well-connected landowner can’t survive attacks on his property rights, who can?

The flashpoint for the fight is a measure the Legislature has sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Senate Bill 968 by Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Francisco Peninsula Democrat, would force Khosla to negotiate away his property rights to the State Lands Commission or face having an undefined right of way imposed across his land, and along his beach, through eminent domain. The bill raises several constitutional concerns, all rooted in the fact that it singles out an individual landowner for legislative intimidation.

First, SB 968 runs afoul of the California Constitution’s prohibition against special statutes.

Article 4, section 16, provides that “a local or special statute is invalid in any case if a general statute can be made applicable.”

Here, a general statute, California Civil Procedure Code section 6210.9, authorizes the State Lands Commission to negotiate for, and even condemn, rights of way and easements to public lands.

SB 968 specially authorizes the State Lands Commission to exercise its negotiate-or-condemn power over just one property owner. That’s as obvious a case of unconstitutional special legislation as any.

Second, SB 968 raises Equal Protection Clause concerns.

This doctrine says people who are “similarly situated” must be treated similarly, unless there’s some rational basis for discriminating among them.

Khosla is just one of many landowners along California’s 1,100-mile coast who own beautiful beachfront property without public access. Yet the bill doesn’t try to force anyone but him to enter into “right of way” negotiations with the state.

Third, the legislation is an attempt to strip him of rights that already have been recognized in ongoing litigation. Whether and to what extent Khosla owns his land, including Martins Beach, is the subject of a current lawsuit.

Already, one court has declared the entire property – including the beach – to be private. Through SB 968, the Legislature contradicts that ruling and effectively, and wrongly, declares the beach to be public, because the State Lands Commission can acquire rights of way only to public lands that it already has.

The bill represents the Legislature’s utter disregard for the proceedings of a coequal branch.

You don’t have to be a fan of Vinod Khosla to take his side in this fight against government authorities who want to take away his land and beach. If property rights are assaulted and subverted for anyone – maybe especially for the wealthiest among us – those safeguards are subverted for the rest of us, whether we live in the valley, the mountains or by the sea.