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For years, California officials have fought to keep the state's richest residents from blocking public access to the beach. This issue comes up especially in the Southern California city of Malibu. Now, as California's economic center has shifted north, so has the battle over its coast.

And the latest fight involves a Silicon Valley billionaire. Amy Standen, of member station KQED, tells us about it.


AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Even on a windy, gray day, Martins Beach, half an hour south of San Francisco, is perfect: a crescent-shaped stretch of sand totally hidden from the highway.

MIKE WALLACE: I mean, to a lot of us, it feels like a little Yosemite of the coast.

STANDEN: Mike Wallace is a surf coach at the local high school. His daughter caught her first wave off of Martins Beach.

WALLACE: It's very spectacular.

STANDEN: But the heart of the battle is not on this beach - lovely as it may be - because all California beaches are, by law, public between the ocean and the high- tide mark. The problem is getting here because unless you're on a boat, there is only one way to get to this beach - the road, which now has a gate and a big, blacked-out sign.

WALLACE: It originally had a really kind of nice mural of what's called Pelican Rock. It was welcoming visitors in.

STANDEN: For almost a century, this land was owned by a family who charged a small entrance fee to visitors. In 2008, they sold Martins Beach to a new owner for $37 million. Almost immediately, Wallace says, a gate went up with a sign saying, "Private Property. Keep Out."

WALLACE: Nobody really knew quite what the status was. They didn't know who the owners were.

STANDEN: Eventually, they figured it out. The new owner of Martins Beach was this guy.


VINOD KHOSLA: Nature takes a million years to produce our crude oil. Kiore can produce it in seconds.

STANDEN: That's Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, promoting one of his clean energy ventures on "60 Minutes" earlier this month. Khosla wouldn't comment for this story. His lawyers declined to answer questions. Part of what's gotten this case so much press is that with his background in solar power and bio fuels, Vinod Khosla isn't the kind of person you'd expect to find in a showdown with environmentalists. Take, for example, attorney Mark Massara.

MARK MASSARA: Even billionaires with a solid track record of conservation efforts, taking coast property and trying to privatize it - people generally are not willing to allow that to happen.

STANDEN: Massara is a longtime surfer, and a lawyer on one of several lawsuits filed over Martins Beach. He and others say look, there are public bathrooms at Martins Beach; an old cafe; a parking lot. These amenities, the fact that people have been coming here for decades, set a precedent of access. And Massara says if Vinod Khosla wins this fight, well, he won't be the last one.

MASSARA: Make no mistake that if the beach is allowed to be privatized in this case, it will inspire other efforts by other wealthy individuals.

NANCY CAVE: We wrote the owner.

STANDEN: Nancy Cave is with the California Coastal Commission, the state agency whose job it is to keep beaches open to the public.

CAVE: We asked them if they wanted to try to resolve it; and we, in fact, sat down and met with the owner's attorneys.

STANDEN: Maybe, she thought, they could work something out. After all, Khosla is going to need permits if he wants to develop the property, and he's going to have to get them from her office.

CAVE: They showed no interest in resolving. They only wanted to litigate.

STANDEN: She and her colleagues say they know how quickly a billionaire can strain the legal resources of a small and chronically underfunded state agency like this one. But they're steeling themselves for a long fight.

ALEX HELPERIN: We're pretty used to litigating against deep pockets.

STANDEN: Alex Helperin, one of the commission's lawyers.

HELPERIN: We've been in litigation with David Geffen...

STANDEN: That's the Hollywood billionaire who tried - and failed - to keep the hoi polloi away from his Malibu Beach estate.

HELPERIN: We've been in litigation with a lot of very wealthy adversaries.

CAVE: Does that stop us from doing our work?

STANDEN: Nancy Cave.

CAVE: No. No.

STANDEN: Meanwhile, the most recent lawsuit could go to trial this spring. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.


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