Local government autonomy wins the day in Coastal Commission case


Last week in City of Malibu v. California Coastal Commission, the California Second District Court of Appeal struck down an expansive interpretation of the Coastal Act that would have undermined local governments’ ability to make local land use decisions.  This case arose over a dispute between the City of Malibu, the Commission and another state agency called the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, over plans to develop four Malibu properties into parks with adjacent trails, campsites and recreational facilities.  The Conservancy, which owns the proposed parkland, had asked the City of Malibu to amend its Local Coastal Program (LCP) to pave the way for these development plans.  Under the Coastal Act, any local government located within the Coastal Zone must have a Commission-approved LCP in place to guide development in conformance with Coastal Act policies.  The City agreed to amend its LCP in order to allow development of these park properties, but the Conservancy disagreed with exactly how the City proposed to allow the development.  And so when the City submitted its amendments to the Commission for approval (as required by the Coastal Act), the Conservancy submitted its own, competing amendments.

The Conservancy alleged that it had the authority to propose amendments to the City’s LCP under a provision of the Coastal Act designed to facilitate public works projects and energy facility development.  That provision states:

Any person authorized to undertake a public works project or proposing an energy facility development may request any local government to amend its certified local coastal program, if the purpose of the proposed amendment is to meet public needs of an area greater than that included within such certified local coastal program that had not been anticipated by the person making the request at the time the local coastal program was before the commission for certification.

Under certain conditions, if a local government does not grant an amendment request for that stated purpose, the Commission may override the local government’s decision and grant the amendment directly.  That is exactly what happened here: the Commission granted the Conservancy’s proposed amendments under this provision and denied the City’s proposal.  When the City challenged this action in court, the Conservancy argued that because it has the authority to undertake public works projects, it has the power to propose amendments directly to the City for any purpose, even if completely unrelated to a public works project.

The court rejected that interpretation and stated:

[W]e find the only reasonable interpretation of section 10515 is that it permits a person authorized to undertake a public works project or proposing an energy facility development to seek a Coastal Commission override to allow the person to do exactly that: to undertake a public works project or an energy facility development that would otherwise be prohibited by the land use policies in the local government’s certified LCP.

In this case, because the Conservancy was not proposing to undertake a public works development—but merely proposing changes to planning criteria and guidelines—it had no authority to propose such amendments to the Commission.  Moreover, the Commission had no authority to accept the Conversancy’s proposals at the expense of the City’s.  The Court reasoned, “nothing in the Coastal act indicates a legislative intent to permit a public agency, simply because it is authorized to undertake public works, to make wholesale revisions to a local government’s coastal development policies and standards, untethered to any specific public works project.”  As a result, the Commission exceeded its jurisdiction when it approved the Conservancy’s amendments.

As Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal said, “This decision is a very big deal because it puts a limit on the Commission’s ability to interfere with local planning decisions.”  It also puts the breaks on the Commission’s attempt to expand the scope of its jurisdiction by pushing the boundaries of statutory interpretation.  Thankfully, the court saw through that smokescreen and affirmed that the Legislature—and not the Commission—gets the final word on the extent of the Commission’s power.