Every Generation Gets the Beach Villain It Deserves
It sounds simple. For nearly a decade, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has been fighting in court to keep the public off a piece of beach that abuts his property on the Pacific coast. What could be more familiar than another case of rich Californian versus the oceangoing citizenry?
But the first thing you need to understand about this absurd war is that it did not begin with Khosla buying a beach house. Just south of Half Moon Bay, Khosla bought an entire beach village ― forming a limited liability company that owned the land beneath about 47 cottages, and a little shop that at one point sold ice cream, and the only viable path to the sand.
The next things to understand are that he bought the place on what he says was a whim, has never spent a single night there, and regrets it enormously.
And the last thing ― given that the case has wound itself to the Supreme Court and could upend one of California’s most sacred promises to its citizens ― is that Khosla is willing to keep litigating this for the rest of his life and has about $3 billion to spend on it.
Over the years, successive California titans have come up against the vexing fact that the beach cannot be privatized. The state constitution establishes that property below the mean tide line belongs to the public, and the Coastal Act of 1976 enshrines this, mandating that public access be maximized consistent with (and here is the tricky part) “constitutionally protected rights of private property owners.” Khosla, through his LLC, is being sued by a nonprofit called the Surfrider Foundation over the matter of whether a permit is needed to block the road, and the thrust of his defense is that his property rights are being violated.
If every generation in California gets the beach villain it deserves ― if the producer David Geffen’s battle in Malibu at the turn of the century epitomized the last, Hollywood-based era of wealth creation ― then Khosla is the sandy antagonist of the digital age.
Geffen, humiliated in the press and shamed by his community, eventually gave up his fight. But Khosla, who by co-founding Sun Microsystems cemented his place in history as an inventor of the commercial internet, seems immune to criticism. Almost since the day in 2008 that he bought the 53-acre hillside known as Martin’s Beach, he has been in court, enduring attacks from multiple parties and crashing through obstacles using every legal tool available. He is driven by an almost manic belief that things must be done right and must be done fair. And somewhere along the line, the state of California triggered him.
Now, by dint of his character, which ticks all the major boxes of the venture capitalist archetype ― aggressive, shameless, obsessive and optimistic ― Khosla could disrupt the entire California coastal system. The stakes are both enormous and hilariously low.
If he wins, he could reshape the laws that govern 1,100 miles of shore. And if he loses, all he would be forced to do is apply for a permit to change the hours of operation on a single gate. The legal volleys would undoubtedly continue; Californians do not easily give up a good surf spot. But the last person against whom to wage a war of attrition is Vinod Khosla.
The tea awaits Khosla on a bright purple leather coaster. The glass walls of the conference room at Khosla Ventures, his investment firm, are the same shade. The banister, too, the sofa downstairs, a hose cord outside, all that exact purple.
Khosla is on time. He’s 63 years old and thin, with close-cropped white hair, and when he pops into his chair, he has no interest in small talk. We already know each other. Khosla is loath to give interviews about Martin’s Beach and it is certainly not in his best interest to do so given that I have told him for years that he is making a fool of himself with this beach, a place he does not even like, and that his quest offends me, a native Californian.
But now Khosla wants to tell his side. He wants me to know that he is right. And where some shy from conflict, Khosla seeks it, almost destructively. So he invited me to his purple lair.
“A billionaire is a bad word in this country now,” he said as his tea cooled. “And that pains me.”
He does not want the beach at all, really. He does not swim. For fun, he hikes.
“I mean, look, to be honest, I do wish I’d never bought the property,” Khosla says. “In the end, I’m going to end up selling it.”
“If this hadn’t ever started, I’d be so happy,” he adds. “But once you’re there in principle, you can’t give up principle.” He frames the struggle in the Silicon Valley patois of contrarianism. “I’d rather do the right hard things now that I’m in,” he says, “than the wrong easy things.”
The “beach issue,” as it is called internally at Khosla Ventures, has surprisingly not been a problem in the office. “It’s an incredible negotiating tool for me,” said Samir Kaul, another partner at Khosla Ventures.
When a company was trying to “screw” the firm, Kaul brought up news articles about the beach at a meeting. “I said: ‘My boss is going to the Supreme Court for a beach he’s never gone to. We’re not posturing here. This guy’s not going to settle,'” Kaul said. “And then I just sat there.”
Khosla’s legal team now includes Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general, who since 2000 has appeared before the Supreme Court in more cases than any other lawyer.
His skills are being applied to a dispute that began with the most minor of directives. After buying Martin’s Beach, Khosla was told by the county that he had to either (a) keep open a road that the public used to get to the beach and not charge more than the 1972-era rate of $2 a car for parking, or (b) apply for a Coastal Development Permit to change access. He chose (c) neither and was sued by his fellow citizens.
Khosla went on to sue the California Coastal Commission as an entity and its officers in their personal capacity. He sued the State Lands Commission and San Mateo County, and, again, its officers. He alleged extortion and infringement of his rights. In his view, the government was forcing him to operate a money-losing parking business. In one legal maneuver, he traced the property back to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico, claiming it supersedes the Coastal Act.
科斯拉随后起诉了加州海岸委员会的实体及其官员个人。他起诉了州土地委员会和圣马特奥县，以及――再一次地――其中的官员。他声称自己遭到了勒索，权利受到侵犯。在他看来，政府强迫他经营赔钱的停车生意。作为一个法律策略，他将这处地产追溯至美国和墨西哥之间的1848年的瓜达卢佩-伊达尔戈条约(Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo)，声称这一条约在法律上取代了《海岸法》(Coastal Act)。
Khosla won, and for a time closed the gate across the beach road. California’s Legislature and governor stepped in to reopen the beach by passing and signing into law legislation to thwart Khosla. This move required purchasing an easement from him; the State Lands Commission estimated the cost at $360,000, but Khosla estimated at one point that his loss of privacy was worth at least $30 million. The parties remain at an impasse, and in June, California passed a budget that included language about using eminent domain to take the road if Khosla does not agree to a price.
After a decade’s worth of billable hours, those in legal combat with Khosla are somewhat awed by his determination.
“All he had to do was apply for a permit to change the gate hours,” said Angela Howe, legal director at the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates beach access causes and is Khosla’s primary antagonist. “It’s really, like, wow,” she said. “Now, if the Supreme Court takes it up, it could rule about every coastal management program in the United States.”
Khosla was born in Pune, India, in 1955 and grew up the middle-class son of an army officer. He says his parents accepted his personality early on, though they also learned he could be a liability.
“The priests would effectively say, ‘If you donate this much money, God will bless you.’ How crooked is that? If I ran into a priest, I’d say, ‘Oh, you’re a crook,'” Khosla says, recalling being 12 years old.
After a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, he founded the electronic design company Daisy Systems and then, in 1982, Sun Microsystems. The company sold servers and workstations and created Java, the programming language that formed the foundation for much of today’s internet. Later, Khosla nurtured the creation of Juniper Networks, which built the routers and switches upon which the internet flourished.
在卡内基梅隆大学(Carnegie Mellon University)取得生物医学工程硕士学位，并在斯坦福大学商学院(Stanford Graduate School of Business)获得MBA文凭后，科斯拉创立了电子设计公司Daisy Systems，然后于1982年创立了太阳微系统，该公司销售服务器和工作站，并创建了Java――这种编程语言构成了当今互联网的基础。后来，科斯拉培育和创建了瞻博网络(Juniper Networks)，互联网靠着这家公司打造的路由器和交换机蓬勃发展。
He became a hero of the political left last decade after investing early and heavily in clean technology and by funding efforts in biofuel, energy storage and solar. Some of his bets succeeded; others failed spectacularly. He has continued to support and invest in eco-friendly startups.
His life plan now is to “reinvent societal infrastructure.” He has recently gotten interested in the YIMBY movement, a pro-real estate development cause that stands for “yes in my backyard.” Khosla wants to 3D-print houses for the homeless to be installed above parking lots. He sketches this for me on one of the perfect whiteboards.
他现在的人生计划是“彻底改造社会基础设施”。最近，他对YIMBY运动感兴趣，YIMBY指“就在我的后院”(yes in my backyard)，是一个支持房地产开发的运动。科斯拉希望为无家可归者建造3D打印房屋，安装在停车场上方。他在一个完美的白板上为我画了这个构想的草图。
He wants people to think bigger, he says. Meanwhile, at Martin’s Beach, he is pursuing a scorched-earth campaign around whether a gate needs a permit. In February, Khosla petitioned the Supreme Court to rule on his case, citing the First Amendment and also the Fifth (the takings clause) and 14th (his right to due process). The justices are now deciding whether to hear the case.
One recent cold summer Sunday, the rusty gate stood open. A few yards down, someone was collecting $10 from incoming cars. The cottages of Martin’s Beach have windows that are thick with salt from the air; some of the houses are small and modest, with peeling paint, and others are more fixed up. The decks were full of barbecues, wicker furniture and driftwood art.
David Pasternak, 66, was at home making smoked salmon. “If the Supreme Court wants to take the case, they want to go after the California Coastal Act,” said Pasternak, whose family bought the cabin in 1960. “And that’s a very serious thing.”
He took a sip of pour-over coffee. “What prompted California to pass the Coastal Act was so we didn’t end up like the East Coast ― miles and miles without access to the water,” he said. “We live in a different country here.”
On some level, Pasternak admires Khosla’s conviction.
“He’s become the caricature of the rich guy trying to keep people out, and that gives the Coastal Commission a lot of pleasure,” Pasternak said. But, he added, “I don’t think he’s doing this for money. I really don’t think he’s doing this out of greed.
“All they said was he has to apply for a permit, and he says, ‘(Expletive) you, I’m not going to apply at all,'” Pasternak said. “It’s kind of ― I mean, he’s awfully sure of himself. You could say he’s principled.”