Pro tip for Silicon Valley billionaires: Don’t pick a fight with a bunch of surfers.
A California state judge on Wednesday ruled that tech mogul Vinod Khosla illegally denied surfers and other members of the public access to Martin’s Beach, a stretch of pristine California coast south of San Francisco that the venture capitalist and green tech investor had purchased for nearly $33 million in 2008.
The state’s landmark Coastal Act requires that even private property owners must provide public access to beaches, and the previous owners of Martin’s Beach had for decades opened the gates to surfers, beachgoers, and other nature lovers as long as they paid a parking fee.
All that changed in 2010 when the company Khosla created to manage the property, Martin’s Beach LLC, abruptly locked the gate and posted security guards.
That galvanized surfers—a group generally not known for taking much of a stand on anything other than a surfboard—into action.
Five surfers jumped the Martin’s Beach fence in October 2012 for a bit of guerrilla wave riding, getting themselves arrested along the way. The San Mateo County district attorney declined to prosecute the “Martin’s 5,” and the Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group, subsquently took up the cause and sued Khosla in state court.
The case quickly became a proxy for San Francisco’s culture wars, pitting a newly enriched tech elite spawned by Facebook, Google, and Twitter against the countercultural ethos of the Bay Area. If tech millionaires and billionaires could privatize the transportation system—symbolized by the Google buses ferrying employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley—could they do the same to the coastline?
No, according to San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach. On Wednesday, she ruled that even by painting over a billboard that had invited the public to come to Martin's, Khosla’s company denied Californians their constitutional right to hit the beach.
“This is one of those watershed moments,” Mark Massara, a San Francisco surfer and an attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, said in an email. “A case like this inspires not just people to go to visit Martin’s Beach, but to renew their love affair with the California coast and teaches future generations that they too can carry the torch.”
The fight is far from over. The judge held that Khosla must obtain a permit from the California Coastal Commission if he wants to restrict access to his property, something he had failed to do. The commission could grant or deny that application, and Khosla could appeal the judge’s ruling.
“We will continue to seek protection of the constitutional rights of private property owners that are guaranteed by the U.S. and California Constitution and that have long been upheld by the United States and California Supreme Courts,” Khosla’s company said in a statement.
Regardless of the outcome, the battle for Martin’s Beach is another sign that surfers increasingly are getting out of the lineup and into the streets.
“The ocean and our planet's resources are under serious threat from global warming, excessive CO2 emissions, sea levels rising,” said famed big wave surfer Greg Long at a benefit Wednesday evening in Los Angeles for Sustainable Surf, a nonprofit that promotes a "Deep Blue" lifestyle for surfers. “It’s not just about ourselves and enjoying our everyday activities but preserving what we have for future generations.”