Coastal Commission relentlessly pursues sisters in land-grab case

November 12, 2014 | By PAUL BEARD

Last month, we reported on PLF’s big win against the California Coastal Commission, when the California Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that three sisters could rehabilitate their old ranch house without having to dedicate a mile-long public-access easement across the shoreline of their property.  The court held that the easement exaction the Commission tried to foist on the sisters as a condition of remodeling their home would effect an unconstitutional taking without just compensation, because the exaction bore no connection to the impact of their project.

The decision comes twelve years after the family began seeking permits to make the necessary repairs (initiated in 2002 by the sisters’ father, who died in 2003).  And it comes after four long years of hard-fought litigation against the Commission.  You’d think that after all these years, and with a unanimous and well-reasoned ruling against it, the Commission would accept the court’s decision and allow the family to pursue their dream of repairing their home.  But sadly, the Commission is puling out all the stops to get its hands on the sisters’ property.

On Monday, the Commission filed a petition for rehearing that asks the Court of Appeal to reconsider its decision.  Bordering on the frivolous, the petition remarkably claims that the court’s decision is based on facts the Commission allegedly didn’t know about—facts that were in the very record that the Commission itself created and considered in making its permit decision! The Commission also claims that the court erred in ruling that the easement exaction was unconstitutional, without first giving the Commission a chance to defend it.  But the difficulty for the Commission is that it has had countless opportunities to defend its easement exaction on the merits, but deliberately has chosen not to.  It didn’t do so at the administrative hearing on the family’s permit when it first imposed the condition.  It didn’t do so in the trial court, after the family sued.  And it didn’t do so in the Court of Appeal. It doesn’t even try to defend the merits of its exaction in Monday’s petition for rehearing, which offers no explanation whatsoever as to how the exaction can possibly withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Instead, the Commission has chosen to defend the exaction on procedural grounds—namely, on the grounds that it is merely enforcing an already-existing easement exaction that appears in an old permit issued by a county planner that the family never accepted and that the county board of supervisors later corrected.  This has been the Commission’s sole argument throughout this entire litigation, and it’s an argument that the Court of Appeal soundly rejected last month. Of course, the real reason the Commission hasn’t defended its easement exaction on the merits is because it can’t.  No facts, real or imagined, could justify requiring anyone to give up a massive public right-of-way across his land as a condition of exercising his right to make improvements to his home—a basic right enjoyed by property owners everywhere.  That’s why it would be futile for the Court of Appeal to grant the Commission the opportunity to justify its exaction:  The exaction is unlawful as a matter of law.

The Court of Appeal rarely second-guesses its decision, which normally is rendered only after careful consideration and analysis.  And when it does (as the Court of Appeal in this case did), it is rarer still that it would take a third look at the case.  In light of that, and the Commission’s fundamentally flawed petition, the sisters are hopeful the Court of Appeal will allow its decision to stand, and that the Commission will relent and let them pursue their dream of restoring and finally enjoying their family home.