REDWOOD CITY -- Billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla spoke publicly for the first time Monday about the controversial decision to shut down public access to a popular beach on the edge of his property, but successfully parried attempts to pin responsibility for the closure on him.
Speaking calmly with little evident emotion and dressed in black, the Silicon Valley tycoon withstood more than an hour of probing questions from attorney Joe Cotchett, whose powerful firm is representing the Surfrider Foundation in one of the most important disputes over California coastal access in recent history. Khosla repeatedly told a San Mateo County Superior Court judge he didn't recall conversations about Martins Beach, and on many occasions invoked attorney-client privilege to avoid answering questions.
"I was dumbfounded at the lack of ability to explain and remember," Cotchett said afterward outside the Redwood City courtroom.
For the Surfrider Foundation and environmentalists, the decision to close Martins Beach after decades of enjoyment by the public is a dangerous assault on the California Coastal Act. Cotchett claims Khosla's attorneys have indicated they will appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, in defense of their client's constitutional private property rights. Khosla and his attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.
The controversy began in 2010, two years after Khosla purchased the 89-acre Martins Beach property for $37.5 million, a deal he tried to keep secret for years. Breaking with the decades-long practice of allowing paid access to the water, the new owner closed the gate on a private road off Highway 1 leading to the idyllic beach.
Permanently locking the gate changed the public's access to the water, and the intensity of its use, according to the Surfrider Foundation. That qualifies as development under state coastal law, they argue, and required a permit from the California Coastal Commission.
Khosla never sought a development permit. His lawyers argue there has been no development, so he doesn't need one.
Surfers, environmentalists and others who are fighting to reopen the beach fear Khosla plans to build an estate there once the leases on several dozen cabins expire, giving him an incentive to limit access. His attorneys claim he simply wants to establish that he cannot be forced to allow people on the property.
He is not the first wealthy landowner to come under fire over coastal access; music mogul David Geffen and other Malibu beachfront property owners waged and lost a similar battle a decade ago.
Under questioning by Cotchett, Khosla said he did not recall having any conversations about public access to the beach before purchasing the land, located a few miles south of Half Moon Bay, nor did he have any specific plans for the property. He testified his property manager, Steven Baugher, was likely responsible for the decision to close the gate. Baugher is slated to testify Tuesday.
Khosla's attorneys have argued that they invited a lawsuit over public access, wanting an opportunity to establish their client's private property rights in a court of law. Khosla didn't take responsibility for that strategy, or any decision other than buying the land, but he provided a hint.
"My intent was to determine what the law says on this issue," said Khosla, "not have public opinion determine the issue."
At first blush the decision to close off Martins Beach seems incongruous. Khosla is known for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into "green" investments, while the public's right to visit and enjoy the California coast, the state's most precious natural asset, is viewed as sacrosanct for the environmental movement.
But Khosla's stance on environmental issues isn't so simple. Khosla's pursuit of alternative energy sources to combat climate change may qualify him as an "eco-warrior," according to a 2007 issue of "Vanity Fair" that Cotchett held aloft in court on Monday. But the founder of Khosla Ventures argues that capitalists, not environmentalists, will save the planet.
"I think the environmentalists do a good job of identifying problems," Khosla recently told "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl. "By and large, they've done a terrible job of identifying solutions, because they don't care about economics."
The report by Stahl, titled "The Cleantech Crash," was Khosla's first public relations headache of 2014. The segment, which Khosla and others criticized as inaccurate, made Khosla the symbol of an American cleantech industry that "60 Minutes" portrayed as floundering.
But Monday may have been more irritating for the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, whose attorneys fought first to keep his ownership of Martins Beach secret and, then, to prevent him from testifying in court. Khosla's involvement was confirmed last year in a separate trial over public access to the beach. Khosla won that trial, which appears headed for appeal.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.