California judge upholds Coastal Commission’s easement exaction

June 12, 2012 | By PAUL BEARD

Yesterday, the San Luis Obispo Superior Court issued an adverse ruling in SDS Family Trust v. California Coastal Commission.  As you may recall, this case involves a family’s constitutional challenge to the Commission’s demand for a public-access easement as a condition of a permit to remodel a home.  The trial court did not reach the question of the condition’s constitutionality.  Instead, the court ruled for the Commission on technical grounds, concluding that it is too late for the Family to challenge the exaction.

PLF client Denise McLaughlan

In 2002, the Family obtained over-the-counter permits to do some minor repair work on its house located on property along the Harmony Coast.  The work consisted of dry-rot removal, and minor roof and foundation repairs.  No one disputes that the Family completed all the work under those permits by January 2003.

Around the same time, the Family separately applied for a Coastal Development Permit to perform more significant work on the property—namely, remodeling the house, installing a septic system and connecting the house to an existing well.  A San Luis Obispo County planner issued the permit in March 2004—over one year after the Family finished the minor repair work.   But the permit included the strange requirement that the Family give up a mile-long public-access easement along the coastal side of its property.  The Family refused to submit to the condition and, 9 months later, applied for modification of the permit to eliminate the offending demand.  The County agreed that the easement condition was inappropriate and removed it entirely.  The County’s decision to remove the easement condition was appealed to the Commission, which reinstated it.

The Family sued the Commission, on the ground that the easement condition constitutes an unconstitutional taking of property and should be stricken.  Because the Family’s remodel work has no impact on public access, there is no reason the Family should have to give up such a valuable interest in its land to the State—without compensation.

The Commission made no attempt to justify the easement condition.  Instead, it claimed that the 2002 over-the-counter permits were part and parcel of the 2004 Coastal Development Permit.  According to the Commission, because the Family completed the minor repair work under the 2002 permits, it implicitly accepted the 2004 permit—and all of its conditions—the moment it issued.  And, because the Family did not immediately appeal the 2004 permit to the County Board of Supervisors, the Family became bound by the easement exaction in the 2004 permit and cannot now challenge it.

The trial court agreed with the Commission, holding that the easement exaction cannot be challenged.  Further, it held that the County had no authority to modify its initial demand for an easement.  The court did not reach the heart of the Family’s complaint—i.e., that the condition is unconstitutional because it bears no relationship to the impact of its home-remodel work.

Stay tuned for further developments, including whether the Family plans to appeal the Commission’s decision.