Decision in Sterling “forced farming” case: agricultural easement “flat out unconstitutional”


Author: J. David Breemer

On June 18, the San Mateo Superior Court issued its Statement of Decision in Sterling v. California Coastal Commission. The case involves the CCC’s attempt to require the Sterlings to actively farm or graze 140 acres of their land forever, and to deed an easement to this effect to the State, in return for permit to build a home for them and their four children on one acre on non-farmed land. In April, the Court held that the condition amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property because it violated the exaction takings standards set out in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard.  Nollan held that the government may not constitutionally impose permit conditions on property owners which would achieve a purpose distinct from that achieved by outright denial; i.e., a condition not directly connected to the impact of the proposed development.  Dolan added that any permit condition must also be roughly proportional in nature and extent to the development.

In its decision, the Sterling court held that the CCC’s perpetual, affirmative agricultural easement condition violated Nollan because

the Sterling home site is not in active agricultural use. Therefore, if a permit were denied, the homesite would remain in a raw state that would potentially allow future agricultural use. Permit denial would not cause any actual agricultural use to occur. On the other hand, the CCC’s affirmative agricultural easement condition does. It imposes actual agricultural activity, rather than simply ensuring agricultural potential. The condition therefore serves a different public purpose from permit denial; while denial might advance preservation of agriculturally suitable land, the condition institutes actual agricultural use. The disconnect between the public interests served by permit denial and those served by the affirmative agricultural easement suggests the condition unconstitutional.

The Court added “the affirmative agricultural easement condition fails the Nollan test because it is not related to the impact of the Sterling home…. The affirmative easement does not mitigate the actual impact of the home, which is simply that the one acre of land would be taken out of potential, not actual, agricultural use.”

In strong language, the Court also held that the easement condition violated the Dolan “rough proportionality” test: “The Sterlings’ home takes up less than an acre. The CCC’s easement condition takes 142 acres, requiring agricultural activity forever on behalf of the public, and transferring all the Sterlings’ development rights to the public. It is flat out unconstitutional to require 142 acres to mitigate a perceived loss of one acre.”

The CCC has always been aggressive in seeking to extract private property by permit conditioning from property owners/permit seekers who have little leverage in expensive, time consuming and often, stacked, CCC proceedings. The CCC loses regularly when its conditions are challenged, but still seems deaf to the message that the United States Constitution trumps its desire to use permit powers to transfer private land to the State. Here’s hoping that the Sterling decision has rung its bell loud enough to jar the CCC from its constitutional stupor- at least when it comes to exaction of excessive easements.