David Tibbitts and his wife, Stephanie, have long planned to retire on their oceanfront property in San Luis Obispo County. Their plans included the demolition of the 1930s-era house and construction of a new, modern home. These plans became urgent in 2018, when David suffered a stroke and became wheelchair bound. The new home had to allow David, his family, and his caregivers safe access and movement around the property.
Because they’re on the waterfront, the Tibbittses’ plans needed a coastal development permit. The process started out just fine: The county approved their permit in March 2019. But the California Coastal Commission (CCC) claimed—erroneously—that it too has jurisdiction over the Tibbittses’ property. And just three months after the Tibbittses obtained a permit from the county, the Commission brought the Tibbittses’ plans to a screeching halt and left them powerless to do anything about it.
Like many neighboring properties, the Tibbittses’ land is fronted by a “riprap revetment,” a type of seawall, which includes a built-in staircase between the backyard and sand, that helps protect against erosion. The Tibbittses’ building plans, as approved by the county, would leave their riprap intact to protect their shoreline and to prevent damage to their neighbors’ seawalls.
Even though the California Coastal Act does not apply to improvements, like the Tibbittses’ riprap, that pre-date the Act, two CCC commissioners took issue with these plans. They filed an appeal to the county’s permit and claimed that under the Coastal Act, the riprap must be removed as a condition of new development approval. Not surprisingly, the full commission accepted for review the appeal filed by two of its commissioners—even though the commission has no jurisdiction here.
If that weren’t bad enough, the commission did nothing to resolve the impasse. It kept the Tibbitts family in limbo and failed to rule on the appeal, even though the Coastal Act requires the CCC to hold a public hearing on all permit appeals.
But for two-and-a-half years after the commission accepted this matter for review, the Tibbittses were still waiting for the commission merely to schedule a hearing. It offered a variety of excuses: The agency was behind because of COVID, planning staff had decreased, and staff turnover required new project managers to catch up.
Another reason given by the CCC, however, highlights a more troubling motive: The commission wanted additional time to prepare because of the “potential precedential nature” of this case. While the Coastal Act doesn’t apply to pre-Act structures, like the Tibbittses’ seawall, the CCC was hoping to use the Tibbitts case to expand its already broad power. The CCC hoped to establish a precedent that it could micromanage all coastal properties—regardless of the limits in the Coastal Act.
And, as usual, the commission wanted to make an example out of the Tibbittses to scare future property owners from challenging its ability to commandeer property.
The tactics are part of the CCC’s long-term trend of expanding its power over local governments and demanding the final say over everything that happens near the coast.
Because the commission refused to schedule a hearing on the Tibbittses’ permit, the family’s plans were placed on indefinite hold.
The commission audaciously claims on its website that there is “no legal deadline” for it to hold the hearing and issue a decision. But, in fact, both state and federal due process guarantees prohibit government agencies from depriving individuals of their rights—here, the right to use one’s property—without a reasonable opportunity to be heard at a reasonable time.
PLF has challenged CCC actions for decades and has several lawsuits in progress, and with PLF’s help, the Tibbittses fought back. Here, PLF filed a lawsuit and asked the state court simply to force the CCC to hold a hearing to make a decision on the permit. Just prompting a hearing will set a precedent for coastal property owners to defend their due process rights from this common delay tactic by the CCC.
After PLF filed the lawsuit, the Commission delayed a bit more but eventually caved to pressure and put the Tibbittses’ permit application on their agenda for June 2022. Not only that, but at the hearing, the commission approved the permit by a 5-3 vote.
Finally, after more than three years of unnecessary and unconstitutional delays, the Tibbitts may now build their retirement home.