There is no public access to Martin's Beach in Unincorporated San Mateo County, Calif., photographed on Thursday, July 19, 2012. Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a green venture capitalist, bought the beach land in two lots in 2008 and has closed the public access to the beach. (JOHN GREEN/Staff)
MARTINS BEACH -- In his first interview about the coastal access battle at Martins Beach, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla told this newspaper he doesn't intend to back down, blasting news coverage of the controversy and accusing his opponents of "blackmailing" him into giving up his property rights.
Khosla spoke hours after his attorneys delivered their closing argument in a closely watched trial over the publics ability to visit the secluded San Mateo County beach. The Surfrider Foundation argues Khosla violated the California Coastal Act by failing to obtain a development permit before permanently locking the gate at the top of his private road off Highway 1. The previous owner had allowed the public to use the road for a fee.
Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla arrives at San Mateo County Superior Courthouse Monday afternoon May 12, 2014, in Redwood City, Calif. Khosla was called to testify about his refusal to open public access to a stretch of beach along the San Mateo County coastline. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
"If the story was right and people thought I was doing something wrong, I'd live with that -- it wouldn't bother me," Khosla said Wednesday night. "But there are massive lies and misrepresentation on the issues here. Surfrider and the Coastal Commission are attempting to coerce and blackmail me."
Surfrider attorney Mark Massara responded Thursday, saying Khosla's comments show he is "out of touch."
But Khosla said he is making a principled stand in defense of individual property rights against overzealous government agencies. The clean energy investor claimed Surfrider, San Mateo County and the Coastal Commission are trying to shame him into ceding those rights, skewing the balance between private and public interests.
"He's put himself in a very unfortunate position," Massara said. "Community concern, legislative initiatives and widespread condemnation are the natural, predictable result of his conduct and strategy."
Surfrider sued the high-tech magnate last year in a bid to force him to seek a coastal development permit for closing Martins Beach Road in 2010. Surfrider is also asking San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach to levy millions of dollars in penalties.
Khosla said Wednesday that news reports have repeated myriad falsehoods, particularly regarding changes in access to the beach. He said reporters have overstated the degree to which the previous owners of Martins Beach, the Deeney family, allowed the public to visit. Rich Deeney testifed in May that the family typically opened the beach during the day but closed it during bad winter weather or whenever it wasn't convenient for them.
The founder of Khosla Ventures also claimed news reports have failed to note that the popularity of Martins Beach had dropped significantly by the time he purchased it in 2008. Rich Deeney testified the decline in visitors contributed to the family's decision to sell the land, which languished on the market until Khosla bought it for $32.5 million. Smelt fishing, once the biggest draw at the beach, had slowed as the fish became less abundant, Deeney testified.
Khosla said he initially allowed the same public access provided by the Deeneys, but the county demanded changes. In a February 2009 letter, the county instructed Khosla's property manager to lower parking prices to $2, since that was the price in 1973 when coastal development laws went into effect, and keep the road open throughout the winter.
"We had allowed access on the same basis as historical access," Khosla said Wednesday, "but then the county starting overreaching and demanding much more."
That touched off a legal battle that Surfrider attorney Joe Cotchett predicted could eventually rise all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The next step, however, is a ruling from Mallach, who will issue her decision in coming weeks.
In addition to Khosla's remarks, Martins Beach LLC, which is owned by Khosla and operated by property manager Steve Baugher, issued a blistering four-page statement Wednesday after closing arguments. The statement accused Surfrider of encouraging "mob behavior" and "class warfare" and claimed the Coastal Commission has rebuffed attempts by Khosla's team to discuss the matter of public access.
Baugher testifed in May that Coastal Commission staff members told him in a November 2011 meeting that Khosla's team should simply give in because the commission would never grant them a hearing if they applied for a coastal development permit.
Nancy Cave, the Coastal Commission's district manager for San Mateo County, disputed that claim Thursday. Cave attended that 2011 meeting, and she remembers it differently. Khosla's attorneys, she said, were unwilling to discuss any solutions to the access problem.
"We're waiting for you to take an enforcement action so we can sue you," said Cave. "That was their response to everything we suggested."
Khosla testified that he had no specific plans for Martins Beach when he bought it. He said Wednesday that hasn't changed. Just because he isn't allowing public access, he said, doesn't mean he isn't interested in environmental protection.
"That's where all my interest in sustainability comes from," he said, "is preserving nature."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.