Judge Orders Silicon Valley Billionaire to Testify in Dispute Over Beach

Martins Beach is home to the residents of about 45 small beach houses, all of whose leases expire in 2021. (Amy Standen/KQED)
Vinod Khosla, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, bought the Martins Beach property for $37.5 million in 2008. (Amy Standen/KQED)

Update, Thursday, May 8: A San Mateo County Superior Court judge has ordered tech billionaire Vinod Khosla to testify in a lawsuit challenging his decision to shut down public access to a popular beach.

As the trial opened Thursday, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach rejected a motion to quash a subpoena for Khosla (embedded at the bottom of this article), who paid $37.5 million to buy the disputed Martin's Beach property in 2008. Defense attorneys said the subpoena amounted to harassment and argued that the manager of the property, not Khosla, was responsible for decisions like closing off access.

Khosla, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, is expected to appear in court Monday.

Lawyers for the Surfrider Foundation said in opening arguments Thursday that Khosla violated the California Coastal Act when he blocked access to Martins Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay.

"The people of the state of California passed legislation in 1976 saying that the beaches are public property," said Surfrider attorney Joe Cotchett outside court. "We now have an individual who steps up and says I’m going to challenge that, because under my constitutional rights, I can buy a beach and close it to the public."


Defense attorney Jeffrey Essner argued that there’s no public right of access to the property because the previous owners routinely closed it for winter, private events and other occasions.

Original post (Monday, May 5):

Attorneys for Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla have asked that the venture capitalist be excused from testifying in a public access dispute over a scenic stretch of San Mateo coastline.

Two companies owned by Khosla, Martins Beach 1, LLC and Martins Beach 2, LLC, bought the 100-acre Martins Beach property for $37.5 million in 2008. The new owners subsequently put up a gate on the main access road and blacked out a welcome sign on Highway 1.

Lawyers representing the non-profit Surfrider Foundation allege that the gate and other work on the property violate California’s Coastal Act.

On April 29, Khosla’s attorneys filed a motion to quash Khosla’s subpoena, which would prevent plaintiffs from calling him to the stand as a witness. (The motion is embedded at the bottom of this article.)

“He wants to hide behind a wall of lawyers instead of coming to court and explain what he’s done,” said Mark Massara, an attorney with the Surfrider Foundation.

Representatives for Khosla did not respond to an interview request. But the motion states that Khosla has no "unique knowledge" about the case and therefore should not be required to testify.

"The Surfrider's efforts to force Mr. Khosla to testify at trial can only be explained by an improper motive to harass, annoy, or invade the privacy of Mr. Khosla, to create some perceived leverage, or to generate publicity," reads the motion.

Khosla’s attorneys have also requested a site visit, which would bring both legal teams, along with the judge, to see "the unique properties" of the beach.

A few dozen residents still live on the beach property, but their leases expire in 2021. Khosla hasn’t commented publicly about the dispute, or revealed what he plans to do with the property.

The Surfrider suit is one of several attempts to preserve public access to Martins Beach, a favorite spot among local surfers. Until 2008, the beach was owned by the Deeney family, which charged visitors a $10 fee to park near the beach.

The trial is expected to begin on Wednesday in front of California Superior Court Judge Barbara Mallach.

Jerry Hill, a Democratic state senator from San Mateo, is proposing to use eminent domain to allow public access to the beach.

Motion to Quash Trial Subpoena to Khosla by KQED News