Partial win for property rights in San Diego

December 12, 2016 | By LARRY SALZMAN

PLF received a ruling last Friday from a San Diego County Superior Court striking down unconstitutional land use regulations imposed by the City of Solana Beach on coastal property owners.

In 2013, the City imposed a slate of new regulations on beach-adjacent property owners, requiring them to give up rights to protect their homes from natural hazards—or give public access across their property—as a condition of permits to develop their land. PLF took on the case to challenge the regulations at no cost on behalf of a local non-profit organization of property owners, the Beach and Bluff Conservancy. The California Coastal Commission and the Surfrider Foundation intervened in the case support of the City and against the property owners.

The court has now held that two of the city’s new regulations violated the California Coastal Act and risked violating Supreme Court precedent. It set aside a prohibition against homeowners building retention walls and other shoreline protection to safeguard existing structures on their property from erosion. The court also struck down regulations that prohibited homeowners from repairing damaged staircases (on private land) providing beach access from their homes.

The court sided with the City, however—or held that a case should wait until individual property owners apply for permits—on several other challenged restrictions. For instance, the court upheld a City demand that bluff-top property owners waive rights to future seawalls for any new development and that they provide public access over their property as a condition of replacing or expanding aging staircases.

Last July, PLF won a case in San Clemente, Calif., against the Coastal Commission, striking down a similar waiver of future seawall rights. PLF and the Beach and Bluff Conservancy are carefully reviewing the decision to determine options for a possible appeal of the adverse aspects of the judgment.

Too often, property owners are unable to challenge coastal land use regulations because city or state officials have power to withhold permits and tie up a valuable piece of property for years as the litigation ensues. With their entire property in the balance, vulnerable property owners often submit to unlawful demands without good recourse to the courts. Here, PLF challenged the regulations as unlawful on behalf of the coalition of property owners immediately after they were enacted, rather than waiting until they were applied against a property owner.Only the most egregiously illegal regulations are typically struck down in such lawsuits, and both Solana Beach and the Coastal Commission have fought for years to have the case thrown out on procedural grounds to avoid a judgment like the one received last Friday. Unlike individual private litigants, PLF—thanks to the financial support it receives from contributors nationwide—isn’t worn down or bullied to capitulation by these tactics.