When the Wall family applied for a permit in 2018 to build a swimming pool next to their home in Hollister Ranch, California, they ended up in the middle of a decades-long property rights battle between their neighbors and government.
The 14,500-acre Hollister Ranch in northern Santa Barbara County has been a working cattle ranch for more than 100 years. The land is subdivided into privately-owned parcels of 100 or more acres. While most of the land is undeveloped, around 90 homes have been built on the Ranch since 1971, including the Walls’. Many properties also have guest houses, employee houses, and barns.
The sticking point for government bureaucrats however, is the 8.5 miles of shoreline owned by the Ranch. The California Coastal Commission’s failure years ago to provide public access to the privately-owned coast prompted changes to the state’s Coastal Act to allow construction permits for vacant lots with just one condition: a $5,000 fee, which would go toward the creation of any future public access to Ranch beaches.
Santa Barbara County initially approved the Walls’ permit application without the fee, as their property is not vacant. The Commission then weighed in, and despite its own staff recommendations that the permit be approved if the Walls paid the fee, it denied the permit.
The Commission said the Walls’ construction would violate the Coastal Act’s public access rules, even though the Walls’ property is nearly a mile from the coast and no one has ever used their property to get to the coast. In fact, because the Walls have no coastal property, they also have no say over any Ranch property along the shore and no legal right to allow public access.
The Commission also said no further construction permits should be approved until the Ranch agrees to provide public access to the coast or pay much more than $5,000 for permits.
In other words, the Commission is punishing the Walls for its own frustration with lack of access at the Ranch in general, not because the Wall project itself would burden public access.
The Walls are challenging the Commission’s arbitrary and unlawful permit denial in California Superior Court. The U.S. and California Constitutions protect property owners from superfluous permit conditions and guarantee just compensation when government takes private property for public use.