LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to proponents of open access to California’s coastline on Monday, declining the appeal of a billionaire venture capitalist seeking to keep a popular beach locked behind a gate as his exclusive property.
The high court’s denial leaves intact a state appellate decision requiring Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla to apply for a California Coastal Commission permit to restrict public entry to Martins Beach in San Mateo County, south of San Francisco.
The Supreme Court turns away the vast majority of petitions it receives, with at least four of its nine justices - one seat currently remains vacant - required to agree to hear any particular case.
Had the four conservatives on the court voted as a bloc to grant Khosla’s appeal, it would have thrown into question a long-established principle of coastal management in California.
The state’s constitution and the California Coastal Act generally guarantee public access to all 1,100 miles of California’s shore from the mean high-tide line of a beach to the water’s edge.
Advocates of open access have insisted that ocean-front property owners seek Coastal Commission approval for any activity limiting the public’s use of a beach.
The coastal protection group Surfrider Foundation said previous landowners going back a century had allowed locals onto Martins Beach for a fee. The group sued after Khosla closed the beach access road behind a locked gate and posted security guards there starting in 2009, refusing to apply for a permit to do so.
A state Superior Court judge sided with Surfrider in 2014, finding that Khosla was in violation, and a state appellate court affirmed that ruling three years later. The gate was reopened after that.
Khosla petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case after the state Supreme Court likewise refused to hear it.
“We’re grateful the California Coastal Act’s promise that a beach cannot be bought, but instead belongs to the public, has survived a billionaire’s whims, which risked gutting the statute’s protections,” said Eric Buescher, a lawyer representing Surfrider.
A lawyer for Khosla, who owns the beach-front land in question through limited liability corporations, said her client would abide by the outcome and apply for the required permit. But she said he was disappointed.
“No owner of private business should be forced to obtain a permit from the government before deciding who it wants to invite onto its property,” attorney Dori Yob Kilmer said, who has framed the dispute as a fight to preserve property rights.
The case echoed a similar legal battle over record mogul David Geffen’s efforts to prevent the use of a walkway to Carbon Beach near his Malibu home in Southern California. That dispute was ultimately settled in 2005.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Darren Schuettler