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Public beach access could be limited if tech billionaire gets his way

Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Vinod Khosla bought Martins Beach in July 2008 for some $37 million.
Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Vinod Khosla bought Martins Beach in July 2008 for some $37 million.
Michele Ursino/Flickr

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Living in Southern California, we enjoy pretty much unlimited beach access. But one Silicon Valley billionaire could change that. Vinod Khosla, who owns a stretch of beach in Northern California, is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to be able to shut out the public.

What started as a local dispute over a locked gate has escalated into a flurry of lawsuits, and one of them may be headed to the highest court in the land. It challenges the constitutionality of guaranteed public access to the coast when it's privately owned property.

Rosanna Xia has been covering this story for the Los Angeles Times. She joined Take Two to explain what's going on.

Who is Vinod Khosla

He is pretty well known in the Silicon Valley tech world, mostly for co-founding Sun Microsystems, and has been profiled as someone involved in green tech, so this is a very interesting case to see unfolding right now.

How Martins Beach operated before Khosla bought it in 2008

It was owned by a family, and they had charged maybe 25 cents at the beginning. That rate grew to $2 and then $10. They owned that beach for a century. It had a parking lot, even a general store. There’s been testimony of families using that beach for generations. It’s also a very popular surfing spot. Khosla, in his appeal to the Supreme Court, talked about how he tried to give the business a go, but like the family before him, he realized this was a business that wasn’t sustainable.

Khosla sometimes leaves the gate open and sometimes he locks it, but he’s been sued for that

Sued multiple times. I would say the lawsuit that got some legs and is being appealed before the Supreme Court was brought by the Surfrider Foundation for the people. Their main argument was the point that Khosla failed to apply for a permit, which is required by state law to shut that gate. Khosla argues back that he doesn’t need to as a property owner. Where it stands now, it’s been ruled at lower court in San Mateo County, is that he needs to keep the gate open while this legal battle is happening. The Supreme Court in California declined to hear the case, so he’s now taking it before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing the constitutionality of the Coastal Act and whether the state has the right.

Khosla's attorney, Paul Klement, has a long history with the Supreme Court

He served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush and clerked for Antonin Scalia. He has an interesting track record. He’s argued against same sex marriage and led legal battles against the Affordable Care Act. Khosla’s hired the one lawyer who might actually get it through.

How Khosla is challenging the Coastal Act

He’s challenging the actual Coastal Act. Khosla is saying, 'I don’t have to apply for a permit. Period.' That’s against my rights as a property owner. He's challenging the Coastal Act requirements, the authority of the state. It’s a very bold argument. If the Supreme Court does take up this case and decides in either direction, it has long-ranging implications on how we as a country handle permitting and land use.

How the Khosla case is different from David Geffen's battle over a Malibu beach

Geffen did end up handing over the keys to that one. We’ve seen this argument play out across California's coast. We do have s state law that the Coastal Act guarantees that every beach in the state is guaranteed for everyone. What’s interesting is if Vinod Khosla’s argument now going possibly before Supreme Court gets a definitive ruling on federal level, it will be interesting to see how that plays out in terms of our interpretation of the Coastal Act. That state law has been around for decades and is so a part of what it means to live in California.

When the Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case

The Supreme Court decides in 90 days whether to take the case.

What are its chances if the Supreme Court takes up Khosla's case

I’ve talked to a number of legal experts who aren’t ready to go there, but they’ve read the 151 pages of his petition. It’s artfully drafted. He’s made all the right arguments to try to capture the attention of four justices, and he only needs four votes to be granted review and five votes for it to win.