SACRAMENTO -- Legislation that could mean greater public access to Martins Beach in San Mateo County cleared its final legislative hurdle on Thursday and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.
The state Senate approved Senate Bill 968 over protests from Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded Sun Microsystems. He owns the property around the beach and has fought, in the Capitol and in court, to block public access to Martins.
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, initially sought legislation that would require the State Lands Commission to use eminent domain to seize a private road that connects to the beach, a favorite spot for surfers located a few miles south of Half Moon Bay.
But after legislators were pressured by a lobbyist hired by Khosla, Hill amended the bill, which now instructs the commission to consider purchasing Martins Beach Road if it cannot reach an agreement with Khosla to voluntarily open access to the coastline adjacent to his sprawling property.
"The purpose of this bill is to have a conversation about beach access," Hill said. "I'm pleased that the Legislature agrees that California's beaches should be open to the public."
Last week, the bill won approval from the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and earlier this week the full Assembly gave the measure its blessing.
Three lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, initially voted for the bill in committee but later changed their votes to abstentions. Campos also failed to cast a vote when the full Assembly took up the bill.
Campos declined to comment on Thursday.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, at first abstained on the Assembly floor before voting yes moments after the bill achieved the 41 votes needed to pass. Earlier this year, Alejo backed amendments sought by Khosla that would have deleted any mention of eminent domain from the bill.
Alejo said in a statement that he "remains concerned" about the bill but felt subsequent amendments allowed him to support it. But, the statement said, he "still believes the best resolution is to work out a compromise between the owner and stakeholders to have a balance between those unique property rights and giving the public access in a timely manner. Otherwise, the issue is likely to remain in litigation for many years despite any legislation that we may pass."
Khosla, who bought the coastal property in 2008, has been battling to limit access to Martins Beach since his property manager locked a gate in 2010 that blocks Martins Beach Road, which connects Highway 1 to the coast. Previous owners of the property allowed the public to cross their private land and visit the beach for a small fee. Khosla followed that same policy before changing his mind.
Earlier this year, the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group, sued Khosla to force him to seek a coastal development permit for closing the road leading to the beach, which might be difficult for him to obtain. A San Mateo County judge heard closing arguments in the case last month and is expected to issue a ruling soon.
California law grants the public access to all tidelands, a term used to describe the portion of a beach between the high and low tide lines. Khosla's lobbyist Rusty Areias, a former Northern California lawmaker, argued during testimony before an Assembly committee that Martins Beach is exempt from that provision because the property became privately owned before California joined the United States in 1848.
Areias did not return a call for comment on the Legislature's approval of the bill.
When asked about the bill during an editorial board meeting with this newspaper last Friday, Brown declined to comment, saying simply: "That topic is being sufficiently contested."
If Brown signs the bill, its impact will be determined by the three men who make up the State Lands Commission: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Controller John Chiang and state Finance Director Michael Cohen.
Newsom and Cohen declined to comment on whether they would implement the bill and use eminent domain to purchase the contested roadway, or enforce public access another way. A spokesman for Chiang said he would not take a position on Martins Beach access until the commission has heard arguments from all parties involved.
Though the commission regularly purchases land for public use, it has never used eminent domain to seize a piece of property in its 76-year history.