When it comes to government bureaucrats abusing citizens’ property rights and pushing the envelope on constitutional limits, the California Coastal Commission is in a class by itself. Our latest effort to defend a pair of Southern California homeowners against the commission’s overly aggressive and heavy-handed tactics is a case study in government abuse of property rights.
Today, we filed our opening brief on appeal in Lent v. California Coastal Commission. We are challenging the California Coastal Commission’s $4.185 million penalty against Warren and Henny Lent, who own a home in Malibu along the Pacific Coast Highway.
In 2016, the commission issued a unilateral penalty order against the Lents, to punish them for having retained a fence, gate, stairway, and other innocuous features of a typical family home, in a five-foot-wide public access way. These features were in place when the Lents purchased the home in 2002. There was no indication in the title records that they were unpermitted or otherwise illegal.
Moreover, the “access way” has never been and is not currently open to the public: the relevant easement agencies would need to make substantial improvements before pedestrians could safely use the access way. That is because, from the street down to the beach, there is a 20-foot drop, partially interrupted by a massive storm drain owned by the county. The precipitous drop is no doubt one reason why prior owners installed the fence and gate. But no matter, the commission concluded—everything had to come out.
If you’re familiar with the Coastal Commission’s customary treatment of property owners, you won’t be surprised that the Lents’ hearing was far from fair. The lack of procedural safeguards, coupled with the commission’s bias in favor of maximizing public access to the coast over respecting private property rights, meant the hearing would be a constitutional sham. Our challenge to the commission’s penalty order highlights these defects.
We advance three main constitutional arguments (in addition to several statutory points):
Briefing in the California court of appeal is expected to continue till the summer, after which we hope for a hearing sometime next year. We’re optimistic that the Lents will ultimately be relieved of this heavy and unfair penalty—and hopeful that the California Coastal Commission will evolve toward a more balanced approach to environmental protection and public access that doesn’t require abusing private property owners’ rights.