Judge Tours Billionaire’s Disputed Beachfront Property
Update, May 15: The courtroom battle over whether Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla can legally bar the public from a coastal property he owns moved to the beach in question on Thursday.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach toured Martins Beach for nearly an hour, walking past dilapidated restrooms and an ungraded parking area. Legal teams from both sides, and a gaggle of reporters, joined the judge on her inspection. An orange plastic barrier and piles of rocks blocked the crumbling stairway down to the beach.
Mallach asked property manager Steven Baugher all about the area, including why the rental “cabins” look like normal homes. She also inspected the gate that has been used to lock out the public since Kholsa bought the land eight years ago.
Lawyers were under a gag order to not speak to the press during the tour. However, after Baugher shut the gate, reporters approached Khosla’s lawyer, Jeffrey Essner.
“I thought it was important for the judge to see the conditions on the beach and to see that there was no parking available on the beach and that if the gate were opened and the owner were forced to have cars come down the beach, it would be a health and safety issue,” Essner said, talking to the press for the first time since the trial began.
Attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation argued that Khosla purposefully allowed the beach to fall into disrepair.
“It’s incredibly disingenuous and self-serving to destroy your own property, let the bathrooms fall apart, not fix the road to other parking, and then say, ‘Oh gosh, we piled rocks all over the public parking area. Sorry we can’t have any beach access.’ I don’t think the judge is going to go for that,” attorney Mark Massara told KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler.
Closing arguments will begin in June.
Billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla testified Monday that he can’t remember much about the management of a $37.5 million San Mateo County beach property that’s at the center of a coastal-access lawsuit.
In Superior Court testimony in Redwood City, Khosla said he could not remember anything specific about his intentions for Martins Beach, south of Half Moon Bay, about directions he might have given his manager for the property, or about a lawsuit or appeals filed in his name in connection with the tract.
The Surfrider Foundation has sued Khosla to restore public use of a road to the beach, which was closed after the billionaire bought the 100-acre property in 2008. The suit is the latest in a series of actions that challenges the closure of the road to Martins Beach as a violation of state laws regulating development on California’s coastline and safeguarding public access to it.
Surfrider attorneys subpoenaed Khosla, saying that as owner of the property he had vital knowledge of any decision made regarding the tract.
But in his exchanges with attorney Joseph Cotchett, representing the Surfrider Foundation, Khosla said he couldn’t provide details about locking the gate across the beach road, partly because property manager Steven Baugher was responsible, partly because his discussions with Baugher were in the presence of attorneys and thus privileged. For instance, this exchange was reported by KQED’s Peter Jon Shuler:
Cotchett: Did you discuss with Mr. Baugher the locking of the gate?
Khosla: All such discussions happened in the presence of counsel.
Cotchett: Did you tell Mr. Baugher, ‘Please lock the gate’?
Khosla: No, not at any specific time that, not that I can recollect.
Cotchett: You never told him, ‘Lock the gate’?
Khosla: He’s the operations manager and he makes those decisions.
Cotchett: So he locked the gate.
Khosla: I assume he made that decision.
Cotchett: So he made the decision to lock the gate. Who instructed him to lock the gate?
Khosla: I did not instruct him. I do not know who instructed him. It must have been at the advice of counsel.
Khosla, who with his wife owns two limited liability corporations that hold the Martins Beach property, has been widely reported to want to build a home there. Monday, he denied having any such intention:
Cotchett: The purchase was for private use and not for a commercial enterprise. True or false?
Khosla: I had no specific plans for the property.
Cotchett: The property was for private use, true or false?
Khosla: I never discussed the purpose because I never had a purpose.
Shuler says Cotchett expressed incredulity at Khosla’s claims:
“He asked repeatedly ‘So, you spent 37 and a half million dollars and you don’t remember what you did about it or what your intention was about this property?’ Those questions were objected to by defense counsel and most of those objections were sustained by the judge.”