A stubborn, selfish man, who I very much doubt even visits the ocean, had the chance recently to forever change the way we view beach access in California—in a very bad way. For what seems like a decade now, Vinod Khosla, an obscenely-wealthy man in Silicon Valley, has fought the California Coastal Act—a 1976 law that forbids the blocking of public access to California beaches, among other things—to keep Martin's Beach, a little strip of land he owns some 30 miles south of San Francisco, private by closing off access in violation of the law.
I've written about the Martin's Beach skirmish for a few years now, and as Khosla's lost court case after court case, it always seemed as though he'd eventually give up, leaving the beach to the public that's enjoyed it for decades. Not only has every California court that has heard his case basically told him to go screw himself (his lawyers were once brazen enough to invoke Mexican land grant law from before California was even a state), but virtually every public and non-profit beach access group has told him the same.
But Khosla's wealth affords him the infuriating ability to continually appeal his losses. This year Khosla finally petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case, challenging the very constitutionality of the Coastal Act. This was a breathtakingly juvenile thing to do. In a teary-eyed fit of rich man's rage, Khosla could very well have taken down the precious bit of law that, for the most part, allows Californians to enjoy any beach in the state as public property.
You see, if SCOTUS had taken up Khosla's temper tantrum of a case and ruled against the state of California and the Coastal Act, it would not have been just Martin's Beach that would be forever behind a locked gate. All bets would be off when it comes to keeping beaches public across the state—or any state in the nation, for that matter. Khosla was willfully flirting with this dark possibility of taking down public beach access law just to keep Martin's all to himself.
Whether or not SCOTUS took up the case was impossible to predict, so we waited until they released the slate of cases they'd hear before we knew how serious this threat was. [ed. note: In October SCOTUS declined to hear the case]. In previous years, it would have seemed unlikely they'd bother to intervene in a bit of state law like the Coastal Act, but with the presumed conservative makeup of the court once Justice Kennedy's replacement is named, ripping up a piece of legislation regulating what wealthy private citizens can do at the public's expense might have been all too tempting for a right-leaning court.
Had the Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in favor of Khosla, the court could have either thrown out the Coastal Act altogether, or ruled narrowly on the Martin's Beach case. Either way, the floodgates would have been propped open with the giant bags of money Khosla has, and you better believe more Silicon Valley gazillionaires would’ve been hopping in their Teslas and zipping up and down the state, from Crescent City to San Diego, to snap up coastal real estate.
In the past, it's been possible (for me, anyway) to maintain a double standard when it comes to coastal access in California. In all transparency, I've got a golden ticket to the real surf ranch, Hollister Ranch, because of a family connection (I’m the furthest thing from wealthy, by the way, this was a case of a family member marrying a dude who owned a parcel). I've seen the benefits of restricted access to a beautiful coastline—it keeps it pristine. Because of that, I've argued for an admittedly unfair kind of status quo: the handful of beaches in the state that are historically relatively private (all beaches in California are public to the mean high-tide line, it's access to the beach that can be privatized) should stay that way to preserve them, while making sure no additional beaches are privatized.
I don't surf the Ranch often enough for this to be a personal crusade to enjoy uncrowded Little Drakes or anything. It's just impossible to spend time at the Ranch and leave thinking it'd be better off with more people. But this mess with Khosla has changed everything for me.
Perhaps it's time to close the loopholes, erase the gray areas and enforce the Coastal Act with the full power of the state. Open it up—the Ranch, Martin's, everywhere. Public coastal access is simply too precious to leave any ambiguity in our laws regulating it. If the Ranch's precious, pristine nature has to be sullied a little, so be it. No more privately-held strips of land keeping people from getting to enjoy their California Constitution-guaranteed right to the beach. No more tempting excuses for the wealthy to horde beach-blocking land for themselves.
If the Ranch were opened, it needn't be an orgiastic free-for-all, either. Ever try to go backpacking in Yosemite's backcountry? The campsite quotas are no joke. You have to apply for a permit months in advance. The human footprint is kept low. Why couldn't the Ranch have a similar setup? Keep the already-purchased parcels of land private property but make the beaches a state park, establish a quota system, charge a day use fee, keep newly built trails minimal and don't allow cars except for Ranch parcel owners. (Please, Steve, if you’re reading this, don’t bar me, man!)
The Coastal Act, guaranteeing access to all beaches in the state, including those at the Ranch, would be intact. As would the pristine quality of the place. Everybody wins—except Khosla, of course.
If Khosla had his way, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergei Brins of the world could waltz down the coast and start snatching up beachside properties and closing off access to the sand for everybody. If the subdivision at Rincon was put up for sale, well, Elon Musk could buy the whole place and keep everybody off his privately-held wave.
Far-fetched, sure, but not completely outside the realm of possibility, and preventing that kind of greedy land grabbing—keeping the rich from dominating the coast of California—is the whole point of the Coastal Act. It exists to ensure that all of us can enjoy a day at any beach and surf any waves in the state that we please. Thank god Khosla’s case didn’t reach the highest court in the land.
If it had, we all may have lost.
[Note: This article initially appeared in SURFER Magazine VOL 59.6, before SCOTUS declined to hear Khosla’s case. It’s been updated to reflect that. Subscribe to SURFER Magazine here.]