Lent v. California Coastal Commission

Massive—and unconstitutional—beach access fines threaten family home

Cases > Property Rights > Lent v. California Coastal Commission
Case Status: Active: Litigation in this case is ongoing

In 2016, the Lents received the California Coastal Commission’s first ever fine—$4.185 million—for blocking public access to the beach. The home sits 20 feet above the beach and, without stairs or a ramp, the public cannot safely get to the beach. The property originally included an outdoor stairway and a gate to block the large drop—both of which had been approved by the local land use agency. In 2015, however, the Commission demanded that the Lents remove the gate and stairway. When the Lents protested for safety and liability reasons, the Commission hit them with the $4.185 million fine. The Lents are suing the Commission for the unconstitutionally excessive fine and for violating their due process rights.

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, if the Lents lose their case, the Commission can enforce a judgment lien on their home. And, worse, the Commission still has no plans to make the easement accessible to the public.

The Commission cannot simply pull a fine that large out of its hat without prior judicial review, nor can an agency charged with prosecuting the Lents also stand as the adjudicator and the entity that stands to benefit from the fine. When using its fining power, the Commission is prosecutor, judge, jury, AND the warden who gets to use the money from the fine they just imposed. The U.S. Constitution requires impartial and disinterested adjudicators to authorize such fines.

Since the fine was levied, the Lents have taken down 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 appealed their fine to the California Court of Appeal, arguing that the Commission violated their constitutional right to procedural due process and protection against excessive, arbitrary fines.

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What’s at stake?

  • A massive, arbitrary $4.185 million fine for violating the access provisions of the Coastal Act violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines.
  • A biased public body that issues a steep fine without judicial review or authorization is a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ right to procedural due process.

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Opening Brief

February 14, 2019 Download

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