Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley billionaire VC, has been fighting for some time to avoid having the great unwashed traverse his beachfront property over a dirt road people in the area have used for decades to access Martin’s Beach. The case is in its final phase in a court in San Mateo County.
The legal issues in the case are a bit complex to try to explain here. They involve years of tradition, the California Coastal Commission and its right to control beach access, Mr. Khosla’s argument that requiring him to open the road would in effect require him to operate a business at a loss. But at its root, this is less a legal battle than it is a social conflict. Khosla will almost certainly win the war; he has enough money to keep appealing even if he loses and he seems tone-deaf enough to keep at it now even if a compromise could be struck. But in the long run, it may be a pyrrhic victory.
Excruciatingly wealthy people like Khosla, who made his money as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, may be perfectly within their rights to lord it over the little people. The question they will face — perhaps sooner than later — is whether they really ought to want to do so.
The abstract notion of income or wealth inequality in our nation — a terrible bane that holds the seeds for our society’s ultimate demise — is tough to get people excited about. As HBO’s John Oliver said on his show recently, the reason even “commoners” feel at least sort of OK about income inequality is because they’ve been sold an absolute bilge of a bill of goods that they, too, might be wealthy one day and then they wouldn’t want that Bad Old Government seizing all their hard-earned (NOT) gains, would they? But take away the peoples’ beaches? Their parklands? Their roads? Ah, then, my friend, you’ve got a war on your hands.
For many years, the people of the Half Moon Bay area have been able to travel from the nearby Highway 1 to Martin’s Beach over that dirt road, pay a small fee for parking, and enjoy what is seen by many as one of the finest beaches on the gorgeous Central Coast. The former owners were local heroes but they tired of trying to maintain the place as a sort of semi-public beach. Their solution was to sell it off.
The Coastal Commission says that in order for Khosla to qualify for some of the development permits he wants, he has to concede the public beach access. His attorneys have a spate of arguments in opposition and, as I say, they may ultimately prevail. But at what cost to Khosla and his family? And at what cost to other similarly situated billionaires around the nation who are flexing their green muscle in ways that just piss people off?
if Khosla were as smart as he is reputed to be, he’d be looking for a better solution than, “Screw ’em. It’s my freaking beach.” But hue probably won’t. And when he finally prevails and the beach is closed to the public for good, that will sow yet another seed of the open rebellion that may be the only way for the Little People to begin taking back their country, one private beach at a time.