July 8, 2014

Has the California Coastal Commission read Koontz?

By Damien M. Schiff Senior Attorney

Evidently not.  This week the Commission is meeting in Ventura, California, and one of the items it’s considering is a request from the City of Ventura to change the zoning on a few undeveloped coastal parcels, to accommodate a possible residential development proposal.  The Commission’s staff is concerned because it would rather have the land used for low cost overnight visitor accommodations (such as hostels or campgrounds).  Therefore, the staff is proposing that any developer wishing to building family homes on these parcels must pay $1.8 million into a fund that will pay for new visitor facilities on state park lands in the area.

The trouble with the Commission’s proposal (as set forth in PLF’s letter to the Commission) is the United States Constitution, specifically the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on the taking of private property for public use without just compensation.  Just last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in PLF’s landmark victory, Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, that a land-use agency cannot condition a permit on the payment of a mitigation fee to be used to pay for facilities that have no connection to the impacts of the permitted developed.  Here, the construction of family homes neither causes nor contributes to any need for overnight accommodations in the Ventura area.  To be sure, building family homes does not satisfy that need, but the failure to satisfy a pre-existing need is fundamentally different from causing or contributing to that need.  For example, if a Coastal Commissioner were to walk up to me and say, “I’m rather famished; would you please buy me a hamburger?” and I were to politely decline the offer, would my declining have caused the hunger, or would it have contributed to the hunger?  By no means.  Hence, by the same reasoning, the fact that residential home construction does not satisfy a need for hostels or campgrounds does not authorize the Commission to take advantage of the fortuity of a rezoning application to exact those benefits from a landowner.

I’ll be live-tweeting the Commission’s meeting from Ventura, so be sure to follow @TheCoastWatch to find out whether the Commission will reject the proposed mitigation fee.

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St. Johns River Water Management District v. Koontz

Coy A. Koontz sought to develop commercial land, most of which lies within a riparian habitat protection zone in Orange County, Florida. He applied for a dredge and fill permit with the St. Johns Water Management District, which  agreed to grant the permit only on the condition that he place a conservation easement over his land, and perform mitigation off-site by replacing culverts and plugging certain drainage canals on distant District-owned properties. When Koontz refused to perform the off-site mitigation, St. Johns denied the permit. PLF successfully represented Koontz before the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that a land-use agency cannot condition a permit on the payment of a mitigation fee to be used to pay for facilities that have no connection to the impacts of the permitted development.

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