Active: Lawsuit filed challenging due process violation in state court

David Tibbitts and his wife, Stephanie, decided to move to their coastal property in San Luis Obispo County in 2018, after David suffered a stroke and became wheelchair bound. The couple has long planned to demolish the 1930s-era house on their land and build a new home that allows David, his family, and his caregivers to safely access and move around the property.

Because they’re on the waterfront, the Tibbittses’ plans need a coastal development permit. The process started out just fine: The county approved their permit in March 2019. But the California Coastal Commission (CCC) claims—erroneously—that it too has jurisdiction over the Tibbittses’ property. And just three months after the Tibbittses obtained a permit from the county, the Coastal 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. California’s Coastal Act does not apply to improvements, like the “riprap” in this situation, that pre-date the Act.

But two CCC commissioners took issue with these plans. They filed an appeal to the county’s permit and claimed that under the state’s 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 has done nothing. It has kept the Tibbitts family in limbo and failed to rule on the appeal. The Coastal Act requires the CCC to hold a public hearing on all permit appeals.

But here, now two-and-a-half years after the commission accepted this matter for review, the Tibbittses are still waiting for the commission to schedule a hearing. It has 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 excuse given by the CCC, however, highlights a more troubling motive: The commission wants additional time to prepare because of the “potential precedential nature” of this case. In other words, the CCC is angling to expand its jurisdiction to include pre-Coastal Act structures. And, as usual, the commission wants 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 a long-term trend of the CCC expanding its power over local governments and demanding the final say over everything that happens at the coast. In the meantime, because of the agency’s appeal, the county’s permit approval is on hold, and until the CCC makes a decision, the Tibbittses’ construction remains in limbo.

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 are fighting back, first with a petition asking the state court to force the CCC to hold a hearing to decide 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. Should the agency deny the permit, PLF stands ready to defend the Tibbittses’ property rights against the commission’s erroneous assertion of jurisdiction.

What’s At Stake?

  • The Constitution’s due process guarantees protect the right of individuals to use and improve their property, and require an opportunity to be heard in a reasonable manner and at a reasonable time.
  • Government agencies should not punish property owners as a scare tactic to insulate their own powers from future challenges.

Case Timeline

December 10, 2021