On the surface it seems like a local and parochial issue – billionaire venture capitalist and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla has been blocking access to the only road to Martins Beach, a crescent-shaped cove near Half Moon Bay, since 2010.
But, scratch the surface and you see political intrigue. California beaches are public assets and, on Tuesday, the hearing was before the California State Lands Commission to determine whether they will move forward with plans to claim the three-foot wide access road which Mr. Khosla wants to sell for $30 million.
Mr. Khosla paid $32.5 million for an 89-acre spread in 2008. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, “The idea that he could command $30 million for the 6.39-acre road is absurd.”
But that’s where Mr. Khosla fits into this picture – he is a big democratic donor. And one of his big benefactors is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, considered the front-runner for Governor in 2018, who just happens to be the highest-ranking elected official on the three-member commission.
The commission is chaired by state Controller Betty Yee and the third member is state Finance Director Michael Cohen.
As staff noted during the hearing on Tuesday morning, Senator Jerry Hill’s bill gave the State Lands Commission one year to negotiate an agreement with Mr. Khosla, but, while they went past that year, “those negotiations have failed.” The staff said, “We were unable to reach agreement with Martin’s Beach representatives and in fact in unequivocal terms they said they were unwilling to sell an access easement to the state.”
Gavin Newsom said, “I want to assure the folks out here, this has been an ongoing effort for years now starting in December 2014, when we had those initial conversations.” He said, “This property has an attached public trust that requires the kind of resolve and the kind of determination that this commission has been noted for.”
He said, “We now have to call the question because we’ve been sued. We’ve been sued personally… I don’t imagine that was to make people feel better.”
Senator Jerry Hill and Former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, a resident of Yolo County, were among those leading the protest against the attempt to keep the beach inaccessible to the public.
Senator Hill said, “What makes California so great and what makes this system so unique, is that we consistently defend the public’s rights.” He said that, on Monday, the legislature” took a very strong position and made a clear statement against a billionaire in Washington that we will protect the interests and the rights of our residents related to beach access for all residents.”
Senator Hill said he’s hopeful the legislation will appropriate some money for this effort to purchase the easement.
He said, “California is really watching… the precedent that could be set with this. They want to make sure their rights are protected and the precedent is set for future generations.”
Pete McCloskey, who has, in addition to being a congressman, been a lawyer practicing law for 63 years, asked the Commission to pass a motion “to direct and authorize your staff to condemn the right of way.”
“This is an historic moment,” he said. “This will be the first time in 78 years that this commission would have exercised the right of condemnation.”
He said, “Your vote today is going to be heard around the world.”
Prior to the hearing, both Gavin Newsom and Betty Yee indicated they were in support of the easement.
A letter from Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog noted, “Vinod Khosla has played hard ball with the commission in refusing to deal in good faith on public access to Martins Beach. He has demanded an outrageous price for property that should be the public’s at no cost. It’s time to initiate eminent domain proceedings. Anything less will be an abdication of your responsibility to the public that deserves access to the beach.”
“Particularly at this time in American history, the California Lands Commission should not pander to a billionaire Democratic donor who has leveraged his wealth and political connections to privatize public property,” Mr. Court added.
However, once they emerged from closed session, the Lt. Governor was guarded at best.
“We’re entering the next phase here, and we are leaning in,” he said. “And we are not happy about this impasse, and we are resolved to doing something about it.”
“We are now moving in that direction in earnest,” said Mr. Newsom. He added, “We are resolved to provide public access to this public resource.”
Meanwhile, Betty Yee said they are learning more about the required elements. She said there are lots of ways to get where we need to go.
The state has offered $360,000 for the easement, but Mr. Khosla is demanding $30 million. The Lands Commission decided on Tuesday to investigate the use of eminent domain.
While some are skeptical about the commitment of the Commission, Senator Hill cheered the decision.
“When you look at the estimated cost of $360,000, even if you tripled that and made it a million or two, the county of San Mateo has said it’s willing to contribute and many land trusts are willing to help,” said Senator Hill.
But some fear this an invitation for more delay. Gavin Newsom called for a strategy to consider eminent domain, but did not rule out a negotiated settlement.
—David M. Greenwald reporting