REDWOOD CITY -- The property manager for high-tech billionaire Vinod Khosla made a key admission Tuesday in the trial over public access at Martins Beach, testifying that the public's ability to reach the water changed after the owner locked a gate on a road leading down to the ocean.

The acknowledgment by Steve Baugher supports the fundamental argument in a lawsuit brought against Khosla by the Surfrider Foundation, which claims that closing the road equaled development under California coastal law and required a permit. California coastal law holds that any action that cuts down on public access to coastal waters, or reduces the intensity of the water's use, is tantamount to development.

Baugher's testimony came on a day of testy exchanges in San Mateo County Superior Court, most of them between Martins Beach attorney Jeffrey Essner and Surfrider Foundation attorney Mark Massara, who took the witness stand to recount a 2007 conversation with Khosla about the venture capitalist's plans for the beach.

Khosla spent more than an hour on the stand Monday dodging questions from another Surfrider Foundation attorney, Joe Cotchett. Khosla repeatedly claimed he did not recall having conversations about the property or seeing legal documents related to the case.

Khosla told Judge Barbara Mallach he didn't know who made the decision to lock the gate to the beach, ending a long tradition of paid public access, but he presumed it was Baugher. On Tuesday, Baugher echoed his boss.


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"I'm in charge of Martins Beach," he said, "and I make the decisions whether the gate's open or closed."

Khosla said he could not recall ever discussing Martins Beach with Baugher without having his attorneys present, which shielded him from testifying about the conversations. Baugher also invoked attorney-client privilege regarding his conversations with Khosla, but he acknowledged discussing the issue of public access with him before Khosla bought the property for $37.5 million in 2008. Khosla testified he couldn't recall any such discussions and had no specific plans for Martins Beach when he purchased it.

Massara challenged Khosla's claims Monday, testifying about meeting the venture capitalist in the spring of 2007 at a photo shoot arranged by Vanity Fair magazine for an issue devoted to the environment. The attorney said Khosla was aware of the history of public access at Martins Beach and pledged to preserve it. Khosla also said he would build a home there, Massara testified.

"His purpose was to have a residence at Martins Beach," Massara said.

In a combative exchange, however, Essner got Massara to make two potentially damaging concessions. First, Massara acknowledged that, if the Surfrider Foundation wins the case and Mallach awards the payment of attorneys fees, he may benefit financially from the trial's outcome. Second, Massara said it's possible that, if the gate at Martins Beach pre-existed the creation of the California Coastal Commission in 1972, which multiple witnesses have indicated, permanently locking it might not have required a development permit from the commission.

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.