A bureaucratic nightmare finally ends for California couple

June 15, 2022 | By JEFF MCCOY , NICOLE W.C. YEATMAN
Coastal Property

Imagine the unthinkable happens: Your spouse suffers a sudden stroke and becomes wheelchair-bound. Life changes in an instant. Ordinary things—stairs, narrow hallways—become insurmountable problems. 

You adapt. You push forward with plans to build a new home with ramps and an open floor plan. The county approves your permit to build. Life is short. You and your spouse can still have a beautiful retirement together on the coastal property you love.  

Then the California Coastal Commission steps in. Even though you already have a permit, the commission says it needs to review your plans at a hearing. 

And then… nothing.  

Even though the commission holds a regular monthly hearing, it refuses to review your case. When your lawyer politely asks the commission to please schedule the hearing (“the delays… are causing serious hardship to our client, who [as you may know] is caring for a wheelchair-bound spouse in a house that is simply not fit for their unique situation”), the commission gives vague assurances that it will review the matter soon. 

Nearly three years go by like this. 

This is the infuriating, unbelievable story of Stephanie Heigel-Tibbitts and David Tibbitts, who suffered for three years because of the California Coastal Commission’s inexcusable delays.  

Now, finally, the story has a happy ending—thanks in part to Pacific Legal Foundation’s efforts. 

Stephanie and David’s story 

Since 1995, the Tibbittses have owned a plot of land on the California coast. The current house on the property is a small, 1930s-era home with narrow hallways and chronic electrical and plumbing problems. It was always the couple’s plan to either renovate or rebuild the house before they retired to the property. 

But things took on new urgency in April 2018, when David suffered a serious stroke that left him confined to a wheelchair.  

Less than a year later, San Luis Obispo County approved the Tibbittses’ coastal development permit, allowing them to demolish the current house on the property and build a wheelchair-accessible home. 

But two commissioners on the California Coastal Commission had a problem with the Tibbittses’ plans. Like neighboring properties, the lot has a type of seawall called a “riprap revetment” that prevents erosion. The riprap is legal under California law, but the commissioners still wanted the riprap removed.  

These two commissioners filed an appeal, which put a halt on the couple’s permit. Two months later, in June 2019, the full California Coastal Commission voted that there was a “substantial issue” with the permit that would require review at a hearing. 

But for nearly three years, the commission didn’t schedule a hearing—even when repeatedly prodded by the Tibbittses’ attorney. 

This was not an easy time for Stephanie and David. Stephanie injured herself multiple times moving David around their current home: She suffered a torn meniscus and a hernia and was forced to start wearing a knee brace. Having their wheelchair-accessible dream home stuck in bureaucratic limbo—not knowing when the commission would ever schedule a hearing—was a significant source of stress for the couple. 

Yet even when the commission was reminded of the couple’s difficult situation, the commissioners just let time go by. 

PLF gets involved 

The Tibbittses’ attorney in their dealings with the commission was Paul Beard, a partner at private law firm FisherBroyles. Paul was previously a principal attorney at PLF, where he headed up our Coastal Land Rights initiative and litigated several cases against the California Coastal Commission.  

After two and a half years of prodding the commission to schedule a hearing, Paul asked PLF if we could help the Tibbittses file a due process lawsuit against the commission.  

According to the Fourteenth Amendment, the state cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” California’s Constitution also prohibits the government from denying due process. Putting the Tibbittses’ permit on indefinite hold—without even scheduling a hearing—violated Stephanie and David’s right to due process. 

PLF filed the lawsuit, Stephanie Heigel-Tibbitts v. California Coastal Commission, in late December of 2021. 

Several months later, the commission finally scheduled the hearing for June. 

This week—three years after the commission put the Tibbittses’ plans on hold by claiming the permit had a “substantial issue”—the commission held the hearing and approved the permit. 

Stephanie and David can finally build the wheelchair-accessible home they need. They cannot get back the three years they lost to the commission’s needless delays—but at least their bureaucratic nightmare is over.