California Supreme Court deals blow to coastal property owners

July 06, 2017 | By LARRY SALZMAN

In a disappointing blow to property rights this morning, the California Supreme Court ruled against Encinitas, California homeowners who had raised a constitutional challenge to conditions imposed on their seawall-construction permit by the California Coastal Commission.

PLF represented Thomas Frick and the heirs of Barbara Lynch pro bono, in Lynch v. California Coastal Commission.

The Court did not rule on the merits of the constitutional challenge, but held that the homeowners forfeited their right to challenge the permit conditions because they built their seawall during the litigation rather than waiting until all litigation concluded.

A trial court had previously recognized that the homeowners had a right to accept the permit conditions under protest and proceed with the construction of a new seawall to replace the previous one destroyed in a 2010 storm. The property owners’ case challenged the Commission’s demand that the seawall permit expire in 20 years, thereafter requiring a new permit or removal of the seawall, as a violation of their statutory and constitutional rights to protect their property from erosion and other natural hazards.

“This decision makes it harder for property owners to fight when the Coastal Commission imposes unlawful conditions on permits to use or build on one’s property,” said PLF Executive Vice President and General Counsel John Groen, who argued the case on behalf of the homeowners. “It is particularly bad for small property owners. The Court has shrunk their right to move forward with projects under protest while litigation proceeds. Instead, they will be forced to put their lives and projects on hold for years while a court battle over an unlawful condition goes on. The result is predictable: many property owners will be forced to accept unlawful, even unconstitutional, restrictions on their property simply because they can’t afford to fight.”

Despite the fact that the property owners contested the unlawful permit conditions throughout administrative proceedings, expressly accepted their permit “under protest” of those conditions, and then promptly sued the Commission to challenge them, the Court said it was not enough to preserve their right to have the conditions struck down. The Court stated that “[t]he crucial point is that they went forward with construction before obtaining a judicial determination on their objections [and] effectively forfeited the right to maintain their otherwise timely objections.”

The decision is painful for the homeowners involved, but it is a slight consolation to other property owners that the ruling is primarily a procedural one. The ruling makes it harder for individual property owners to fight when the Coastal Commission goes beyond its authority and imposes illegal permit conditions, but PLF is committed to finding those cases that can proceed and litigating them to a constitutional victory on the merits.