California Coastal Commission keeps grabbing land

Oct. 23, 2012

By Katy Grimes

What do you get when you have a powerful state commission of 11 unremarkable people, which produces nothing, but regularly takes money and property from taxpaying citizens, while currying favors with others?

I just defined the California Coastal Commission.

However, for 40 years the California the Coastal Commission has managed to fly under the radar of most residents and communities outside of the coast. And it has done this with the help of Democratic lawmakers.

The California Coastal Commission has operated since 1972 without oversight. Attempts to rein in the rogue agency have landed in Superior Court, appellate court and even up to the state Surpreme Court. But it became very clear long ago that the Coastal Commission is not about environmentalism or conservation. This unelected state commission is about power over the people.

How has this happened?

The California Coastal Commission was established in 1972 by voter initiative. Proposition 20 authorized the State of California to regulate development of the coastal zone, and gave the Coastal Commission permit authority for four years. Four years later, the Legislature passed the California Coastal Act of 1976, which extended the authority of the Coastal Commission indefinitely.

Proposition 20 was written by Peter Douglas, a darling of the left, who became the director of the commission and sat on it for more than 25 years.

Coastal “disturbances”

Any “disturbance” imposed on California’s coastal areas without a permit constitutes a violation of the Coastal Act.  Some violations: Sunbathing using a portable umbrella on your own private property above the public beach in Newport Beach; replacing rotten planks on a landing midway down a stairway to the beach; and obstructing the view of the coast in any way imaginable.

The Coastal Commission is the biggest nanny California has. But while the agency may be dressed as a nanny, it behaves like a bully.

The most notable land-use challenge to the Coastal Commission was the Nollan case. In 1987, the Nollans owned beachfront property in Ventura County and wanted to replace a 504-square-foot bungalow which had fallen into disrepair with a 2,500-square-foot house.

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court because the Coastal Commission tried to require that the Nollans give up a piece of their beach front land as a public easement as a condition of approval of a permit to demolish an existing bungalow and replace it with a three-bedroom house. The Coastal Commission had asserted that the public-easement condition was imposed to promote the legitimate state interest of diminishing the “blockage of the view of the ocean” caused by construction of the larger house.

In a highly controversial 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the requirement by the Coastal Commission was a constitutional “taking” of private property in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Stolen property and stolen life

In 1997, Dan and Denise Sterling bought nearly 140 acres of land in the hills of El Granada, in San Mateo County, planning to build a large house. Ten acres of the property were classified as prime agriculture located along the El Granada Creek watershed, making it necessary that any development comply with farmland requirements under San Mateo County’s Local Coastal Plan, the Half Moon Bay News reported.

The Sterlings grazed cattle on the land.

But when they tried to get building plans approved by the San Mateo Planning Commission, the delays began.  The San Mateo Board of Supervisors eventually approved the plan two years later, largely noting that the Sterlings were already using the agricultural land for cattle grazing.

Then things got nasty. Two Coastal Commission members appealed the county’s approval of the Sterling home and delayed hearing the case for another two years. Until the Sterling’s threatened a lawsuit, nothing happened.

Eventually the Coastal commissioners offered an unconstitutional deal to the Sterlings: If the family wanted to build their house, they had to put easements on the rest of their property to keep it as farmland in perpetuity, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation.

But the real objection of the Coastal commissioners was the 6,500 square-foot home the Sterlings wanted to build. “This isn’t a farmhouse; this is a 6,500-square-foot house,” said Christopher Pederson, deputy chief counsel for the agency. “This pattern of luxury development can undermine an agriculture economy.”

According to the Pacific Legal Foundation, “Under this condition, the Sterlings would have been forced to farm or raise cattle on 142 acres of their land, forever, in order to build a single family home on a 10,000 square foot site — even though they aren’t farmers or ranchers!”

After a Superior Court judge struck down the “forced farming” requirement, the judge sent the case back to the Coastal Commission so it could reconsider the Sterlings’ application.

“But the Commission proceeded to impose a new condition that was as objectionable as the first,” PLF wrote.  “This new condition — the one that has just been struck down — did not require the Sterlings to engage in farming or ranching, but did demand that they record a deed restriction permanently converting more than 140 acres of their land outside the home site into open space for the public good.”

PLF filed a new complaint on the Sterlings’ behalf. The Judge held that the Commission lacked the authority to impose the deed restriction condition, and that, even if it had such authority, the condition amounted to an unconstitutional taking because it had no relation to any public need created by the proposed home-construction project.

“The new condition, in the form of an open space deed restriction, is not tailored to the development and is once again irreconcilable with Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. Tigard,” the court concluded. That was because Supreme Court precedents forbid using the permit process as a means of seizing property without compensation, according to PLF.  “As compared to the Commission’s prior failed attempt to impose an agricultural easement on the property, the Commission’s new attempt is a distinction without a difference.”

Nearly 15 years later, the Sterlings won back their property rights. But with four children, living in a mobile home on the property became just too much, and they moved elsewhere.

California Legislature’s purview

The California Legislature has the authority to rein in this abusive and tyrannical agency, but does not. But there is something the Legislature could do.

The abuses of the coastal commission are made even worse because taxpayers foot the bill for all of the Coastal Commission’s legal cases and legal staff. The California Coastal Commission uses the Department of Justice to do its dirty work.

Perhaps this is the best example of why it is so important for the California Coastal Commission to pay for its own legal bills, as proposed by the Department of Justice.

Until the the California Coastal Commission is brought under serious reform, the commission will continue to abuse its power, and the property rights of California residents.

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