Attorneys presented opening arguments Thursday morning on the first day of the latest courtroom battle of private-property rights versus pubic beach access at Martin's Beach. At the start of the day's hearing, Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach indicated she would compel Martin’s Beach owner and tech magnate Vinod Khosla to appear and testify in the case.
The high-profile case pitted lawyers for Khosla, a billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems, against a team of legal heavyweights including attorneys Joseph Cotchett, Mark Massara and Pete McCloskey, a former congressman. Nearly a dozen reporters were in attendance to record the events.
Filed by the Surfrider Foundation, the lawsuit focuses primarily on the California Coastal Act and whether the property owner followed the letter of the law by closing off a private road. The property surrounding Martin’s Beach is indisputably privately owned, but coastal advocates contend that the road leading down to the beach should be kept open for public use. Surfrider attorneys stopped short of demanding access in this case, but they argued that any actions taken to restrict public use should have required a coastal development permit and review by government authorities.
For nearly a century, the Deeney family owned and ran Martin’s Beach, inviting people to pay a toll to go down to the sandy shoreline. The beach was a destination for picnicking, smelt fishing and surfing, and over the years “tens of thousands” of people visited the spot, said Eric Buescher, an attorney representing the Surfrider Foundation. That tradition ended after Khosla acquired the property for $37 million and gradually limited access before closing it entirely, he said. A judgment for Surfrider would “vindicate” the public’s right to access the beach, he said.
“This case is about compliance with the Coastal Act,” he said. “This is not a statute that allows people to do what they wish and then ask for forgiveness or plead ignorance.”
Martin’s Beach attorneys disputed that any violation of the law had been committed. Generations of the Deeney family had decided on their own when to open the beach to the public, and sometimes they closed it off for private events or inclement weather, said attorney Jeffrey Essner. A gate to restrict beach access had been installed long before Khosla took ownership, he said.
“There is simply no public right of access to any part of my client’s property,” he said. “This includes the private road; this includes the beach; this includes the tidelands; this includes the submerged tidelands.”
Attoneys representing Martin’s Beach urged the court not to force Kholsa to testify in the case, claiming he had no direct knowledge of the day-to-day management. But the judge was not convinced, and she requested Khosla to appear in court on Monday afternoon.