Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ran his previous legal bids aground last year, Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla is still fighting to stop people from accessing a popular beach in San Mateo County.
On Monday, a California appeals court bolstered Khosla’s legal arguments with a favorable decision, agreeing with a lower court’s conclusion that the public doesn’t have an unimpeachable right to access a road leading to Martins Beach.
Martins Beach (often erroneously written “Martin’s Beach,” including in the court decision) is a popular hangout for surfers near the town of Lobitos just south of Half Moon Bay.
Khosla doesn’t own the beach—he can’t. Per the California Coastal Act, such places are always public land in the state.
But he did buy the land surrounding the beach in 2008 for $32.5 million, closed the only road, and had five surfers arrested when they decided to head down to the shore anyway.
The group Friends of Martins beach sued Khosla, alleging that if he prevents anyone from getting to Martins Beach (the only possible land route that does not cross Khosla’s property involves nearly impassable cliffs), he’s violating state law.
Khosla’s lawyers contend that he’s merely enforcing his property rights on land the Silicon Valley billionaire owns fair and square.
In Monday’s ruling, the appeals court took into consideration the fact that previous owners let people use the road to the beach for decades meant that they had “dedicated the road and beach to a public use.”
Khosla pointed out that there was always a toll on the road. The judges agreed that this was significant, saying, “Because the public’s use of the road and beach was thus permissive, it did not ripen into a public dedication” that would have given beachgoers firm rights in this case.
The appeals court was quick to add that it was aware of the California Coastal Act and its mandate to “maximize public access to and along the coast and maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone.”
But the court concluded that its hands were tied despite those implications, because “as strong as the coastal access policies of our state are, we do not understand them to empower us” to rule against Khosla in this case.
In recent years, the gate to Martins Beach has remained unlocked and visitors routinely cross Khosla’s land to reach it without legal repercussions.
This week’s decision isn’t likely to lead to the closure of the beach again soon, but it could set the stage for future showdowns between Khosla and would-be visitors.