Claiming that the secretive, semi-anonymous owner of a scenic beach in San Mateo County has "deliberately, oppressively, and maliciously obstructed" the public from using the popular seashore spot, an attorney claiming to represent "the general public" filed suit in San Mateo Superior Court on Monday, seeking to have the beach reopened. The complaint asks the court to award "punitive damages" to anyone who wanted to sunbathe there, but couldn't, for the past three years.
Martin's Beach, a crescent-shaped spit of sand 10 minutes south of Half Moon Bay, was purchased in 2008 for $37.5 million by Martins Beach LLC, a limited liability company which is believed by surfers and tanning activists to be owned by Silicon Valley venture capital billionaire Vinod Khosla.
Santa Cruz attorney Gary Redenbacher, who has never been to Martin's Beach himself, filed the complaint "on behalf of every resident of California," he said. "Except, of course, Vinod Khosla." The lawyer representing the mysterious property owner, former San Jose city attorney Joan Gallo, said, "We welcome the opportunity for a court hearing to uphold the property owner's constitutional rights."
The California constitution, which upholds the rights of both property owners and anyone with an oversized towel, is the basis for the competing claims.
"It's outrageous to me that anybody would try to block off beach access," Redenbacher explained after filing the lawsuit. "That's supposed to be there for me, it's there for you and it's for your children. It outrages me that anybody would try to exclude anyone from the beach."
Nearly every inch of the coastline is owned by the state of California, and the constitution requires that it be made accessible to the people. "It's not enough to say, 'You can go down the street,' " Redenbacher asserted. "The entire beach front of all California shall remain available."
After buying the property, the new owner erected a barricade on Martin's Beach Road intended to prevent the public from getting to the small neck of sand, nestled between rocky shoulders on either side. According to Redenbacher, four surfers who stormed the barricade and attempted to ride the waves at Martin's were arrested recently. The timing of the legal complaint was coincidental, he said, but it reinforced the need for a lawsuit.
"Calling the police and having some people who just want to surf the break be criminally prosecuted -- not just asked to leave -- is their right, of course," Redenbacher said. "But everything that they've done seems to me a malicious attempt to prevent people from going in there."
Cloaked in fog
When Khosla was asked by a reporter for this newspaper to confirm or deny ownership of the property, he fled, refusing to comment. His name surfaced in a letter from Gallo to the Surfrider Foundation last year, but Khosla's role in the dispute remains cloaked in the kind of fog familiar to anyone who has ever been to Martin's Beach.
Dispensing with the sort of legal language customary in court filings, the complaint at times waxed lyrical, describing a place "where generations of people picnicked, stoked barbecues, netted smelt, rode waves, watched sea lions, collected seashells and relaxed with family and friends."
Now Martins Beach LLC has 30 days to explain why that kingdom by the sea should remain the province of one man.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.