Adamski v. California Coastal Commission

Builders battle the California Coastal Commission’s basement ban

Cases > Property Rights > Adamski v. California Coastal Commission
Active: Case filed in Superior Court of California, Monterey County

When Chris Adamski, a Monterey County, California contractor, and his longtime mentor and friend Mike Pietro bought four properties in the county’s Carmel Point neighborhood in 2014, they planned to develop two houses to sell, and then build one house for each of them—Chris for his large family, and Mike for retirement. The California Coastal Commission (CCC) reversed the permits for three of the lots because Chris and Mike couldn’t prove with 100 percent certainty that their land contains no archeological resources. The CCC effectively banned basements in the area and illegally expanded their oversight of local building regulations. Because the Commission has neither the jurisdiction nor the right to create arbitrary new land use laws through permitting, Chris and Mike are suing in state court. 

Chris Adamski is proud of the home-building business he’s built in Monterey County, California, and the work he’s accomplished with Mike Pietro, his longtime mentor and friend. In 2014, the men decided to go in together and buy four of the last vacant lots in the mostly built-out Carmel Point neighborhood.  

Their plan was to build two homes to sell and one home for each of them. Chris was looking to build a dream house for his wife and four daughters, while Mike, now 83, hoped the property would be his final retirement home. Like the neighborhood’s other 90 homes, their building plans included basements, which are allowed under the local coastal program. 

The partners built and sold one home with a basement and without a hitch. But when they submitted permit applications for the three remaining properties, their plans hit rock bottom—because they included basements. 

Facing pressure from local groups called Save Carmel Point Cultural Resources and the Open Monterey Project, the county’s planning department balked at the plans, saying that basements could disturb Native American archeological remains that might be under the property. 

The county ultimately approved the permits after $200,000 worth of 17 archeological surveys, core samples, trench excavations, and ground-penetrating radar turned up no archeological or tribal cultural resources, and the partners agreed to have an archeologist and tribal representative oversee all digging on the property. 

The two activist groups then appealed to the California Coastal Commission. The Commission itself had previously certified the county’s land coastal program—basements and all—and handed over permitting power to the county. Nevertheless, the Commission said that no permits for basements can be issued unless applicants can prove with 100 percent certainty that their land contains no archeological resources. 

There are two big problems with the Commission’s decision. First, there is no way any landowner can prove with 100 percent certainty that something doesn’t exist below the ground. Second, the Commission’s decision to take up this case is a major expansion of their power. The CCC has reinterpreted the Coastal Act to give themselves veto power over local permits across the state that were previously exempt from Commission review. 

Rather than giving in, Chris and Mike are fighting back. Represented by PLF free of charge, the partners are suing the Commission in state courts for its illegal use of permits to not only overstep its lawful authority but also create a new de facto ban on basements. 

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What’s at stake?

  • Government cannot force landowners to give up property rights—which include the ability to build a basement—in exchange for permit approval.
  • The California Coastal Commission cannot reinterpret the Coastal Act to expand its authority to veto local building permits.

Case Timeline

September 08, 2020

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