December 10, 2014

California Supreme Court takes PLF's seawall case

By California Supreme Court takes PLF's seawall case

Today, the California Supreme Court granted PLF’s petition for review in Lynch v. California Coastal Commission.  The supreme court’s grant means that the court of appeal’s decision in favor of the Commission is vacated, and the case will be set for a new round of briefing and argument next year.  Here’s PLF’s press release:

PRESS RELEASE

The PLF case accepted by the state Supreme Court today is Lynch v. California Coastal Commission, in which PLF represents two Encinitas bluff-top homeowners, Barbara Lynch and her neighbor Thomas Frick. The litigation challenges the commission’s refusal to give Lynch and Frick anything other than a temporary permit for a seawall to protect their property from erosion; the commission is demanding that they re-apply for a new permit after 20 years — a demand that could force the seawall to be torn down at that time.

Donor-supported PLF is nonprofit public interest legal organization that is the nation’s leading legal watchdog organization for property rights. In California, PLF has been the leading litigator against abuses by the Coastal Commission. PLF represents Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick free of charge, as with all PLF clients.

Statement by PLF Principal Attorney Paul J. Beard II

“The state Supreme Court’s decision to accept this case is good news for everyone who values property rights, whether you live at the coast or far inland,” said PLF Principal Attorney Paul J. Beard II, who wrote the petition for review that the Supreme Court granted today. “The Coastal Commission is violating constitutionally protected property rights, as well as the clear mandate of the state Coastal Act, by robbing coastal homeowners of the ability to protect their property and their homes from being destroyed by erosion. Coastal Commission officials seem to be on some kind of ideological crusade that says coastal homeowners don’t deserve the full protections of the law and the Constitution. Every homeowner in California has an interest in this case. If a government agency can get away with stripping coastal property owners of their legal and constitutional rights, then property rights for everybody are that much weaker.

“By taking this important case, the state Supreme Court now has an opportunity to slam the brakes on the Coastal Commission’s obsessive crusade against seawalls,” Beard said. “It’s a crusade that amounts to an unconstitutional war on property rights.”

Background: The Coastal Commission picked up where a violent storm left off

The homeowners’ troubles date back to December, 2010, when a severe storm and erosion destroyed their seawall and the lower portion of their long-existing stairway that led from their homes down to the beach.

“The Coastal Commission picked up where the violent storm of 2010 left off, by mounting a frontal assault on these homeowners,” said Beard.

The City of Encinitas gave Lynch and Frick permission to rebuild the seawall and the stairway. But the Coastal Commission balked, and refused to affirm that approval. The commission denied permission to replace the stairway, and would grant only a temporary permit for a replacement seawall. After 20 years, the property owners would have to apply for a new seawall permit or tear down the structure.

Procedural history of the PLF case that the Supreme Court accepted today

In April, 2013, a trial court struck down the Coastal Commission’s anti-seawall restriction on Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick as a violation of the commission’s duty under the Coastal Act to allow people to protect their property from erosion.

However, this past September, a panel of the California Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed that decision by a 2-1 vote and sided with the commission. The panel’s majority claimed that landowners’ legal right to protect their property from erosion is subject to any limitation the commission wants to impose. In contrast, the dissenting judge held that regulations cannot be so excessive that they cancel statutory and constitutional rights, and imposing a 20-year expiration date on a seawall permit was an unnecessary, extreme, and invalid demand that did not constitute genuine mitigation.

The appellate court majority also held that the homeowners waived their right to challenge the time-limit on the seawall and the denial of their right to rebuild their stairway, by going ahead and rebuilding. But as PLF’s petition to the Supreme Court noted, the homeowners in fact preserved their right to challenge these conditions by clearly objecting to them at every stage, and then timely challenging the conditions in court. They signaled unambiguously that they were building the seawall subject to their right to challenge the illegal and unconstitutional aspects of the seawall permit. As a practical matter, they had no choice but to proceed this way, because of the urgent need to rebuild in order to protect their property — as is their right under state law and the U.S. Constitution.

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Lynch v. California Coastal Commission

The Lynch family sought permission from the California Coastal Commission to repair a storm-damaged seawall and stairway that led from their home at the top of a bluff down to the beach. The Commission permitted the seawall restoration with a condition that they seek an additional permit in the future, and denied the permit for the stairway. To protect their home, the Lynches accepted the conditioned permit under protest and repaired the seawall. PLF represents the Lynches, arguing that the seawall conditional permit and denial of the stairway permit violated their constitutional property rights. California’s appellate courts rejected the Lynch’s claims, and the California Supreme Court added insult to injury by holding that the Lynches forfeited their claims altogether by accepting the permit and repairing the seawall.

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