The 12 gods of ancient Greece were vengeful and petty.
Hermes once turned a nymph into a tortoise because she didn’t show up for Zeus’ wedding. Apollo skinned a flute player who challenged him to a contest. Demeter condemned a king to eat his own flesh because he cut down the wrong tree.
These punishments were not acts of justice. They were acts of wrath. The gods condemned anyone who made them angry—even people who didn’t do anything wrong.
It was simply a devastating amount of money: $4.185 million.
Warren and Henny Lent were shocked. The fine was far, far higher than the $600,000 settlement the commission had tried to negotiate before its kangaroo-court “hearing.” It was far higher than the commission’s own staff had recommended.
The purpose was to utterly crush the Lents. Cruelty was the point.
The 12 members of the California Coastal Commission decided on the amount, and they hadn’t needed any court’s approval. After all, the commission is “the single most powerful land use authority in the United States,” as UCLA Law Professor Jonathan Zasloff puts it. Now the commissioners were flexing their recently acquired power: the power to punish.
One commissioner, pushing for the higher fine, reasoned that the commission didn’t “want to be in a position [of] rewarding… applicants that have been fighting us and resisting these types of opportunities.”
What happened to Warren and Henny Lent is as baffling and tragic as a Greek myth. It shows the consequences of giving authorities the power to act vindictively, outside the bounds of reason.
Before you read on, we should warn you: This is not a fairy tale with a happy ending.
This is a horror story.
Warren Lent is a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. He knows how that sounds. “Everyone immediately thinks, ‘Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, this guy must be loaded as all heck,’” he told Pacific Legal Foundation when we started working with him in 2019.
He and his wife, Henny, didn’t grow up rich. Warren’s dad was the plant manager at a factory in New York; his mother was a legal secretary. Henny’s parents are both Holocaust survivors. “Both of our parents worked extremely hard just to make ends meet,” Warren said. As kids, Warren and Henny both grew accustomed to not getting things they wanted, “and those kinds of people grow up with dreams,” Warren explained.
One dream he and Henny shared was to someday own a house on the beach. For years, Warren worked at two different practices, 25 miles apart, so he could save up enough for a down payment.
“It wasn’t like we’re some wealthy family and have tons of money and we can just purchase anything,” Warren said. But he was a successful doctor, and over time, the couple’s finances grew.
In 2002, the Lents bought a three-bedroom house in Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway. The house, built in the early 1980s, had a gate on one side with an exterior staircase that led down to the house’s deck, then down farther to the beach below. The gate and staircase were a nice safety feature: Otherwise, there would be a steep, dangerous drop.
The house was in a beautiful spot. The beach, Los Flores Beach, is a narrow, quiet strip of sand. When it’s low tide, you can walk along the shore for miles.
It was what the Lents had saved for. But they never really had a chance to be happy there.
“Personally,” Warren said, “I have had extremely little peace and enjoyment from the property.”
A couple months after they purchased the house, one of their new neighbors mentioned a problem with the property: The house’s original owners had an easement agreement with the California Coastal Commission. The exterior stairway jutted two feet into the easement—a violation of the original agreement.
“I started digging into it, and then I found out what kind of a mess we were in,” Warren said.
To people who don’t live in California, it’s hard to describe the kind of power that the California Coastal Commission wields.
The commission was established in 1972 to “help local governments adopt local coastal plans,” Kimberley Strassel writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Instead, it pulled a Saddam, investing itself with dictatorial powers over every last grain of the state’s 1.5 million acres of coastal property—public and private.”
Its 12 commissioners control development of all coastal property in California, up to 1,000 yards (over half a mile) inland from the shoreline.
“The commission basically tells us what to do, and we’re expected to do it,” Jeff Jennings, then-mayor of Malibu, told The New York Times in 2008. “And in many cases that extends down to the smallest details imaginable, like what color you paint your houses, what kind of light bulbs you can use in certain places.”
“The California Coastal Commission is known as an activist—some might say aggressive—agency that interprets its statutory powers broadly,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board acknowledges.
During its early years, the commission would force coastal property owners to sign easement agreements in exchange for permit approvals. You couldn’t build your home unless you agreed to give the commission permanent rights to use part of your property.
But PLF client Patrick Nollan stood up to the commission in 1982. The commission had refused to grant Pat a permit unless he gave up about a third of his property for public use. “If the state can just take your property, I think that’s wrong,” Pat told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a basic issue of fairness.” In 1987, Pacific Legal Foundation brought Pat’s case to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the commission, calling its scheme an “out-and-out plan of extortion.”
Unfortunately, the victory in Nollan came too late for the original owners of the Lents’ Malibu property: To get the commission to approve their permit to build in 1978, the original owners had to provide the commission with a public access easement.
And yet, when construction finished in 1983, the house included a gate and stairway which partially blocked the space the owners had promised to the commission.
In the original owners’ defense, building the gate was necessary: Without it, pedestrians might fall down the dangerous 20-foot drop from the sidewalk to the beach.
Plus, they might have reasoned that if the easement was important to the commission, surely it would make plans to build the accessway and alleviate the hazard. But after demanding the easement, the commission did absolutely nothing.
So decades went by, with the house—and its stairway—sitting peacefully on Los Flores Beach.
“People love to make fun and how stupid they are in business situations,” Warren said, “and I guess I’m the poster child for that.”
The Lents didn’t have a lawyer review the property title when they bought the house in 2002. Until their neighbor mentioned it, they had no idea any easement issue existed.
Then, in 2007, five years after they bought the house, the Lents received a “Notice of Violation” letter. The commission was demanding the removal of the gate and stairway, calling them “unpermitted.” The Lents responded, requesting that they be allowed to keep the stairs and gate in place until the commission was ready to develop the public accessway.
Thus began a nine-year argument between the Lents and the California Coastal Commission.
“Every letter that my attorneys sent to them always said, ‘When you are ready to build this, we will remove all structures,’” Warren said.
But that did not satisfy the commission. Its demands were inelastic, irrational. They wanted the gate and stairway removed without a second thought. Even though removing the structures would create a dangerous drop-off, the commission was insistent.
It didn’t like being questioned.
In 2014, the California State Legislature bestowed a startling new power on the already-powerful California Coastal Commission: It would now be able to impose fines of up to $11,250 per day to force compliance with their orders.
That’s when the Lents’ situation took a sinister turn.
“They started talking to us about a $600,000 penalty,” Warren said. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t have $600,000. Where am I going to get $600,000 from?’”
The Lents tried to work out a settlement agreement: Even though the gate and stairway were part of the house when they bought it, they would remove them and pay a $100,000 penalty.
But now that it had its new power to fine, the commission wasn’t satisfied.
It wanted to punish. It wanted to make an example out of anyone who dared question its dictates.
Everything came to a head at the Lents’ hearing before the commission on December 8, 2016. Commission staffers recommended a fine of $950,000. It was an astronomical amount of money—but it was not high enough for the commissioners.
They settled on $4.185 million instead.
“This would destroy a lifetime of work,” Warren wrote afterward in The Wall Street Journal.
Pacific Legal Foundation worked with Warren to challenge the fine as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. We tried to bring the case to the Supreme Court, but the Court denied our cert petition.
As shocking and incomprehensible as it is, the fine stands.
And what exactly was the Lents’ crime?
“I mean, when you sit down and the dust settles, you say, ‘What did Warren and Henny Lent do? They bought a house on the beach to fulfill a lifelong dream,’” Warren said. “That’s all we did.”
It has been over 40 years since the California Coastal Commission extorted an easement out of the original owners of the house on Los Flores Beach. And as far as anyone can tell, as of this writing—even after its battle with the Lents—the commission has yet to open a public accessway on the easement.
It fined the Lents $4.185 million. It destroyed a lifetime of work. For an easement that the commission still has no interest in opening or ever using. It was purely for show.
For the commission, this wasn’t about the easement. It was about crushing someone who questioned the commission’s dictatorial commands.
“I would say that before this whole incident came up, I was a big believer, a big patriot,” Warren told us. “I believed in the United States.”
His experience with the California Coastal Commission shook him.
“It’s a small group of people who have the power to do this,” he said, “and they can squash any citizen like a little bug.”
This article originally appeared in the fall 2022 edition of Sword&Scales.