Government can’t violate your property rights to send a message

August 15, 2019 | By J. DAVID BREEMER
Santa Barbara county

The members of the Wall family never imagined their attempt to build a pool and spa at their isolated home in Hollister Ranch, California, would end them up in court. But as many Pacific Legal Foundation clients have discovered, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) has a long history of giving landowners no other option.

Hollister Ranch is located in Santa Barbara County, a 14,500-acre cattle ranch that has been subdivided into smaller, privately owned parcels. The ranch includes 8.5 miles of privately owned shoreline.

Last year, the Walls applied for a permit to build a swimming pool on their property for their large family and grandchildren to enjoy. The county approved the request, but before they could begin construction, the CCC overruled the permit. The reason? The CCC refused to issue a permit until the Walls granted public access to Hollister Ranch beaches.

Here’s the problem: The Walls’ property is nearly a mile from the shoreline, and they have no ability to donate any land along the coast. But the CCC appears to be making an example of the Walls. The agency has a long-running property rights dispute with Hollister Ranch about public access to the coast. In an act of pettiness, the CCC is punishing the Walls to send a message to the rest of the Ranch owners: submit to public beach access or get no permits at all.

The CCC’s stated mission is to protect California’s coastal resources and ensure the public has adequate access to the coastline. Those are perfectly laudable goals. But the CCC must respect property rights and treat permit applicants as people, not pawns in a public-access vendetta.

The CCC must also obey the Constitution. In 1987, it lost a case to PLF attorneys in the Supreme Court case Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. The Court held that the CCC cannot demand public access in exchange for government permits if the proposed construction has no harmful impact on public beach access. Certainly, this applies to the Walls’ pool; located far inland and on a wholly private parcel, it hardly affects public beach rights. Yet, the CCC doesn’t seem to care. This is Hollister Ranch after all, and the CCC has taken off the gloves.

But the Walls, represented by PLF attorneys, are fighting back. Together, we are challenging the CCC’s denial of the Walls’ permit (and the absurd public beach access demands) in California Superior Court. California law and the U.S. Constitution protects property owners from this type of abuse.

The Walls now join PLF’s many battles for property rights in the courts (including a landmark victory at the U.S. Supreme Court just a few weeks ago). We look forward to fighting for the Walls’ rights in court and sending another message to the overreaching bureaucrats of the CCC: private property rights matter.