Lynch v. California Coastal Commission

California erodes landowners’ right to protect their property and their ability to challenge government action

Cases > Property Rights > Lynch v. California Coastal Commission
Lost: Court held that the property owners had forfeited their right to sue.
Case Court: California Supreme Court

The Lynch family sought permission from the California Coastal Commission to repair a storm-damaged seawall and stairway that led from their home at the top of a bluff down to the beach. The Commission permitted the seawall restoration with a condition that they seek an additional permit in the future, and denied the permit for the stairway. To protect their home, the Lynches accepted the conditioned permit under protest and repaired the seawall. PLF represents the Lynches, arguing that the seawall conditional permit and denial of the stairway permit violated their constitutional property rights. California’s appellate courts rejected the Lynch’s claims, and the California Supreme Court added insult to injury by holding that the Lynches forfeited their claims altogether by accepting the permit and repairing the seawall.

The Lynch family (the heirs of Barbara Lynch), and Thomas Frick own beachfront property in Encinitas, California. In 2010, a major storm swept through the area, destroying their protective seawall and damaging the stairway that leads from their blufftop home down to the beach. They sought permits from the California Coastal Commission to rebuild and repair the seawall and stairway. When the Commission denied the stairway permit and conditioned repair of the seawall on a 20-year expiration date, the Lynches accepted the permit under protest and PLF sued on the Lynches’ behalf. PLF argued that the Commission’s requirement that the Lynches endure a new permitting process or remove the seawall in 20 years violated their statutory and constitutional rights to protect their property from erosion and other natural hazards.

The trial court agreed with PLF that the construction could proceed under the city’s unconditioned permits that authorized the Lynches to rebuild the seawall and stairway in the same location and dimensions. But the Court of Appeal reversed and reinstated the Commission’s condition on the seawall and denial of the stairway permit. PLF successfully petitioned the California Supreme Court to hear the case, arguing that the trial court correctly held that the commission lacked authority to veto the reconstruction of a private stairway that was destroyed by a storm, and to place a 20 year expiration date on a new seawall permit.

The state high court’s decision, however, failed to reach the merits of these claims. Instead, relying on a theory that neither party advocated, the court ruled that the homeowners forfeited their right to challenge the permit conditions because they built their seawall during the litigation rather than waiting until all litigation concluded.

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What’s at stake?

  • Property owners must be allowed to protect their homes as well as their rights while challenging permit conditions in court. Without the ability to accept a permit under protest, property owners will be forced to accept unlawful restrictions on their property simply because they cannot afford to leave the property untouched while they fight.
  • Landowners do not lose their property rights through such random events as storms damaging or destroying structures that must be repaired to ensure continued use of the land.

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