David Tibbitts’ debilitating stroke in 2018 left him confined to a wheelchair. Stephanie, his wife, was having trouble moving David around the narrow hallways of their cramped 1930s-era home on the California coast.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
For 20 years, Stephanie and David had worked together at the whitewater rafting business that David built from the ground up. They loved their beachfront property but not the worn-down house that sat on it. Someday, they thought, they’d build themselves a new home so they could comfortably enjoy their retirement together. By 2017, they’d decided they were ready—and then David had his stroke.
It was a shock. But Stephanie is resilient. She pushed forward with plans to demolish the old house, which David couldn’t navigate independently in his wheelchair, and build a new home in its place with ramps and an open floorplan.
In March 2019, San Luis Obispo County approved the Tibbittses’ permit to build. The new home would give Stephanie a bit of peace. It would give David back a little bit of the freedom he’d lost from his stroke.
But two commissioners on the California Coastal Commission held up the project by filing an appeal. Like neighboring properties, the Tibbittses’ property has a type of seawall called a “riprap revetment” that prevents erosion. The riprap is legal under California law, but the two commissioners still wanted it removed. The other commissioners agreed: In June 2019, they found a “substantial issue” with the Tibbittses’ county-approved permit—which put the Tibbittses’ project on indefinite hold. The commission informed the couple that they couldn’t move forward with their plans until the commission could review the project at a hearing.
So Stephanie and David were stuck in the old house—with its small rooms and chronic electrical and plumbing problems—while they waited for the commission to schedule the hearing.
And they waited.
1 year, 6 months after the commission halted the project
The email was polite but firm.
“This extraordinary delay in bringing this appeal to a close is by no means a ‘normal’ part of the land-use permitting process,” Paul Beard, the Tibbittses’ attorney, wrote to the commission. It had been, he pointed out, “[e]xactly 1½ years” since the commission found a “substantial issue” with the permit and put a halt to David and Stephanie’s plans to build a wheelchair-accessible home.
And even though California law required the commission to hold a hearing, it hadn’t even scheduled one.
“The delay has been especially stressful and harmful to the Tibbittses,” Paul wrote.
David’s health was precarious. Before his stroke, he’d always been the one to handle real estate and legal matters. Now Stephanie was trying to make sense of the California Coastal Commission’s actions on her own. “I couldn’t even talk to David about it because it would upset him,” she says.
The old house was falling apart. At one point, Stephanie heard sparking from an outlet; when she went to investigate, the whole outlet popped out of the wall into her hand. She sent Paul a photo. Surely, the California Coastal Commission would understand the need for a new house.
“My whole outlook was, ‘They can’t be this unreasonable,’” she says.
But as months went by without a hearing date, Stephanie became more and more anxious. “I had a lot of sleepless nights,” she says.
At least she had Paul Beard on her side: Paul is a partner at the private law firm FisherBroyles. He was previously a principal attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, where he defended coastal property owners against onerous agency recommendations . He now was dealing with the commission so Stephanie didn’t have to.
A hearing to review the Tibbittses’ building plans was “long overdue,” Paul told the commission in his email, “if only for humanitarian reasons.” He asked that the couple’s project be reviewed at the commission’s next monthly hearing in January.
Brian, a staffer for the commission, responded that January wouldn’t be possible.
When Paul pushed for an explanation, Brian said that the commission’s internal deadline for the January hearing had passed. Also, the holidays were coming up. And although the Tibbittses’ project was small, it was important to the commission because of the potential precedent it could set for the commission’s regulations of other coastal properties.
“I could provide a target date,” Brian wrote, “but nothing can be considered certain, particularly when there is no specific legal deadline.”
No specific legal deadline: It was an extraordinary thing to say. He seemed to mean that the commission could delay as long as it wanted.
“Thank you for understanding,” he added.
1 year, 7 months after the commission halted the project
Paul emailed Brian bto ask if there’d been any progress scheduling the Tibbittses’ hearing. Brian replied that the commission was targeting April.
1 year, 9 months after the commission halted the project
Brian left the California Coastal Commission in March for another job. When Paul emailed the commission, he was put in touch with a new staffer, Kevin, who said he was still “brush[ing] up where Brian left off.” As for the Tibbittses’ hearing date, Kevin wrote, “my best guess at this time is May or June.”
Stephanie wasn’t sure how much more she could take. She had started hearing horror stories about the California Coastal Commission. “People would say, ‘Oh yeah, they strung along the lady that lived at that house for 20 years, and then she died.’ And I’m going, ‘Oh my God.’”
She thought about giving up and selling the property so she could build a wheelchair-accessible home somewhere else. But then a friend told her: “No one will buy your house when you’re embroiled with the California Coastal Commission.”
Besides, at this point, Stephanie felt like she owed it to David to hold onto the property they both loved. “He’s had so much taken from him,” she says. “I didn’t want that to be taken as well.”
1 year, 11 months after the commission halted the project
Paul emailed Kevin:
Hi Kevin — Can we get a hearing on this matter in June? June will be the 2-year anniversary of when the commission found ‘substantial issue.’ The delays in getting this to [a hearing] are causing serious hardship to our client, who (as you may know) is caring for a wheelchair-bound spouse in a house that is simply not fit for their unique situation.
Kevin replied to say that he was no longer handling the Tibbittses’ case—his colleague Ryan was.
Paul immediately followed up: “Hi Ryan — Can you get us on the June agenda?”
In his response, Ryan said that “realistically” he was “aiming” to “hopefully” get the Tibbittses’ project on the agenda for October or November.
Paul replied: “We are at a loss to understand this extraordinary delay (even taking into account under-staffing).”
More than a week later, Ryan wrote back. “I really don’t have anything to add beyond what I have already stated,” he said.
Initially, Stephanie had been keeping her friends updated on when the hearing was likely to be scheduled based on the commission’s vague promises. But now she stopped talking to anyone about it. There didn’t seem to be any point.
“I was feeling so discouraged,” she said.
2 years, 3 months after the commission halted the project
Paul emailed Ryan to ask if the Tibbittses could “finally get a hearing in October?”
Ryan replied that the commission couldn’t make October happen, but it was “hoping” to get to it by the end of the year. “I will let you know when I know more,” he added.
Stephanie had initially believed that the California Coastal Commission would see reason if only they understood her situation. But after two years of pointless delays, she no longer believed that. “I mean, if they’re doing this knowing the condition of my husband—they just don’t care,” she says.
She would have loved for the commissioners to spend a few hours in her house, caring for David. “It would have been the perfect eye-opener for them, to see how difficult things have been,” she says.
2 years, 4 months after the commission halted the project
It was around this time that Pacific Legal Foundation became involved.
By this point, Stephanie had health woes of her own: She’d suffered a torn meniscus and a hernia while maneuvering David around the old house and now wore a knee brace.
Paul had been prodding the commission for two and a half years. Even when he reminded the staff about David and Stephanie’s difficult situation, they refused to put the hearing on their calendar. The commission seemed content to let years slip away while David and Stephanie struggled, stuck in regulatory limbo.
This was more than an annoyance. The commission was violating Stephanie and David’s due process rights.
The Fourteenth Amendment says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Due process means a fair and prompt administration of justice. The California Coastal Commission had prevented David and Stephanie from using their property, and it had refused to give the couple a timely opportunity to be heard.
Paul asked PLF if we wanted to help the Tibbittses file a due process lawsuit against the commission.
We said yes.
2 years, 6 months after the commission halted the project
“Process delayed is process denied,” PLF wrote in our petition, filed with the court in December in David Tibbitts and Stephanie Heigel-Tibbitts v. California Coastal Commission.
For two and a half years, Stephanie and David had waited. Their lives had been on hold. David was now 76. Stephanie felt like she’d been stuck in a nightmare.
The California Coastal Commission cannot endlessly postpone, PLF wrote. “The Tibbittses have the right to be heard at a meaningful time, but they have been denied that right.”
3 years after the commission halted the project
Finally—three years after the California Coastal Commission claimed their building permit had a “substantial issue,” and six months after PLF filed our due process suit—the commission held the hearing. Jeff McCoy spoke at the hearing on the Tibbittses’ behalf.
In a 5-3 vote, the commission approved the permit.
It was an approval that could have happened years earlier, and would have, had it not been for the California Coastal Commission’s pointless and cruel delays.
Stephanie is relieved that her ordeal is over. She and David can move on with their lives. They’ll build the home they’ve longed for and they’ll fill it with new memories.
But they cannot get back the three years the commission stole from them.
And Stephanie will still remember what it felt like to be trapped in the old house, asking the California Coastal Commission for understanding—and getting nothing at all.
This article first appeared in the fall 2022 edition of Sword&Scales.