When Warren and Henny Lent bought their home along the Pacific Coast Highway in 2002, they had no idea that they were walking into a regulatory hornets’ nest. They had done their due diligence, and they were excited to have a dream home on the ocean. Little did they know that the California Coastal Commission was about to pull out some 25-year-old blueprints that would upend their lives.
When the home was originally built in 1978, the Commission conditioned construction of the home on the original property owners granting the Commission an easement to the beach. The problem is that the home sits about 20 feet above the beach and, without stairs or a ramp, the public cannot safely get to the beach. Worse, without a gate, passersby would fall onto a large drainage pipe that runs the length of the easement and drains the entire highway.
Not surprisingly, then, when construction on the home wrapped up in 1983, it included an outdoor stairway from the home’s second story to the path, and a gate at the street’s public entry point that blocked the huge drop. And those schematics were approved by the local land use agency.
But five years after the Lents purchased the property, the Commission told the Lents that they were violating the terms of the easement. The Commission told the family that the gate had to go, as did the stairs connecting the home’s second story to a deck. The Lents protested, insisting that the gate and stairs were necessary for security and liability reasons. Moreover, the Lents said that the gate and the stairs had been in place for over twenty years, and they wondered why the Commission was coming after them then? But, out of a gesture of goodwill, the Lents handed the keys over to the Commission and allowed them to open up the gate whenever they wanted.
That wasn’t good enough for the Commission. Using a newly granted power to fine individuals for “denying access to the beach,” it slapped the Lents with a $4.185 million fine—a transparent attempt to make an example of the Lents and scare future homeowners from ever contesting the Commission again.
The Lents neither knew about the previous owners’ alleged permit violations nor were they responsible for them. What’s more, a permit to develop the easement has languished with the City of Malibu for over two and a half years, suggesting that the engineering challenges in developing public access may be insuperable.
The Commission cannot simply pull a fine that large out of its hat without affording the accused the traditional procedural safeguards of a trial. And regardless of procedure, the Constitution forbids the Commission to levy such grossly disproportionate fines.
Since the fine was levied, the Lents have taken down all of the structures, including the gate, but in a sad and ironic twist, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority has subsequently installed a now-locked gate along the property line to protect the public from the dangerous drop to the storm drain.
On behalf of the Lents, Pacific Legal Foundation has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case, arguing that the Commission violated their constitutional right to procedural due process and protection against excessive, arbitrary fines.