SACRAMENTO -- A proposed law to allow public access to Martins Beach passed one of its last major obstacles Thursday in the state Legislature, overcoming intense lobbying by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, the property's owner.

The bill, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would ask the State Lands Commission to consider using its power of eminent domain to purchase access to the beach. The bill squeezed past a key chokepoint Thursday, clearing the Assembly Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote. It heads to the Assembly floor next week.

The legislation, SB 968, is one of four lines of attack on Khosla's controversial decision to block the public from reaching the isolated cove south of Half Moon Bay. Khosla is fighting two lawsuits seeking to restore access, and the California Coastal Commission this month launched its own investigation into providing beach visitation.

Hill's legislation must pass the full Assembly and return to the Senate floor before it can reach Gov. Jerry Brown.

"I think we've got a good chance now," Hill said Thursday as he drove home from the state capital.

The previous owners of the property allowed the public to cross their private land and visit sandy Martin Beach for a fee. Khosla continued that practice for two years after buying the land in 2008. But in 2010 his property manager locked the gate leading from Highway 1 to the coast.


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SB 968 would require the State Lands Commission to negotiate with Khosla to acquire access. If those talks did not yield a compromise by Jan. 1, 2016, the bill would authorize the commission to use its power of eminent domain to buy an easement, likely along Martins Beach Road. Though the commission regularly purchases land for public use, it has never resorted to eminent domain to seize property in its 76-year history. The State Lands Commission oversees roughly 4 million acres of land that the state holds in trust for use by the public. These sovereign lands include tidelands, or the portion of a beach that is seaward of the mean high tide line. They also include the beds of navigable lakes and rivers and thousands of miles of land that is submerged off the coast of California.

The commission has a staff of about 240 people and various responsibilities, including managing the state's offshore oil and gas leases. It has three voting members: the lieutenant governor, the state finance director and the state controller.

As it stands now, the decision whether to use eminent domain would fall to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Finance Director Michael Cohen, and the winner of the race for state controller between state Board of Equalization member Betty Yee and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

The commission would conduct an appraisal to determine the cost of buying a right of way. The agency has a fund of roughly $6 million that could be used for that purpose.

Legislative analysts for the Appropriations Committee estimated the price could run into the tens of millions of dollars. But others, including the county of San Mateo, predict the price would be much lower, between $1 million and $2 million. They note the easement would amount to a sliver of the 89-acre property that Khosla purchased for $32.5 million.

Khosla hired influential lobbyist Rusty Areias of California Strategies to battle SB 968. He has succeeded in watering the bill down -- the original version would have required, not asked, the State Lands Commission to use eminent domain -- but has yet to snuff it out. Areias did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Coastal advocate Warner Chabot said it's too soon to predict victory for SB 968. He anticipates Areias will work furiously to peel away Democratic votes in the Assembly.

"It's always easier to kill a bill than pass it," Chabot said. "That's a fundamental rule of Sacramento."

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