By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist has stepped into the middle of a long-standing controversy over a California tradition: open access to the state's famed beaches.
In a lawsuit filed this week, the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection group, alleges that the owner of a beachfront property south of San Francisco has violated the law by closing an access road that has long been used by local surfers and fisherman to reach a spit of sand called Martin's Beach.
"It's the most beautiful beach in San Mateo County," said Mark Massara, a lawyer for Surfrider. Massara says he surfs often at the beach and believes the law provides for access to everyone.
While documents list the owner of the property as Martin's Beach LLC, a person familiar with the matter says the owner is Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a prominent venture capitalist known for investing in clean-energy technology.
In California, unlike in most other states, all beaches are open to the public under the constitution. But private landowners are not always required to allow access to the coastline across their property, and many disputes have arisen over the years - often involving wealthy beachfront homeowners.
In the case of the Martin's Beach property, the previous owner had long allowed locals to access the beach for a fee. But the new owner, who bought the property in 2008 and soon after installed gates on the access road and hired guards to keep people out - infuriating locals, who staged a protest at the property on Thursday.
Lawyers for Surfrider say California's Coastal Act calls for permits around activities that change the use or intensity of use at a beach - permits Martin's Beach LLC failed to acquire before installing the gates.
Joan Gallo, a lawyer for Martin's Beach LLC, did not respond to phone messages. A spokeswoman for Khosla did not respond to requests for comment.
HEIRESSES, EXECUTIVES AND MOGULS
The dispute echoes record mogul David Geffen's long battle to prevent use of a walkway near his Malibu home. In 1983, Geffen agreed to allow a pathway to Carbon Beach when he sought permits for a pool and other additions, but he later filed suit to fight the access. In 2005, Geffen settled the suit and allowed the public walkway.
More recently, heiress Lisette Ackerberg has been fighting an easement on her Carbon Beach property, where she has built a tennis court and a generator that block the easement. She is appealing a 2011 order from a California Superior Court judge that require her to clear the right of way.
The tiff also evokes some other neighborly disputes in recent years involving wealthy technology executives including late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Lucasfilm founder George Lucas and Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
Jobs fought a bitter battle with neighbors in Woodside, California, over a 1920s-era house he owned but wanted to tear down and replace with something more sleek. He twice won demolition permits that were contested by preservationists; the wrecking ball finally came to the house in 2011, months before his death. The property is now vacant.
Also that year, Ellison settled a case he had filed against his neighbors over trees he said blocked the bay views from his house in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood.
Last year, special-effects pioneer Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars," got so fed up with his development-fighting neighbors in Marin County, California, that he scrapped plans to expand his Skywalker Ranch and said he would instead sell it to a developer to build low-income housing.
And this year, the California Supreme Court is reviewing a case that pits software mogul Kapor against his neighbors in the hills of Berkeley, California, where he hopes to build a 10,000-square-foot house.
In the latest conflict, Martin's Beach LLC lawyer Joan Gallo told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week that she welcomed the case. "All we've wanted from the very beginning was an opportunity to have a court decide the rights and obligations of the parties."
Khosla made his name as a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and later joined the blue-chip venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He started Khosla Ventures in 2004, and the firm known for investing in clean-technology companies such as renewable energy company KiOR and renewable-products company Amyris.
In 2011, Khosla committed half his fortune to charity as part of the Giving Pledge, an initiative started by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett.
But he is somewhat of a maverick who has complained about environmentalists. Last year at the Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference, he said clean technology has been hurt by environmentalists more than any other group, because environmentalists back idealized solutions that "don't make any economic sense."
The lawsuit in Superior Court of California, San Mateo County, is Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC, case number 520336.
(Reporting By Sarah McBride; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Douglas Royalty)