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.


Write a comment
  1. surfpunk
    surfpunk 23 October, 2012, 11:29

    katy. you forgot to add lawson landing

    Reply this comment
  2. us citizen
    us citizen 23 October, 2012, 13:16

    Katy… write the best articles.

    Reply this comment
  3. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 23 October, 2012, 13:29

    Thanks US citizen.

    Surfpunk, I am writing more stories about the Coastal Commission. There are so many. Stay tuned.


    Reply this comment
  4. C.J.
    C.J. 23 October, 2012, 17:29

    So when does the Coastal Commission start tearing down homes in Malibu?
    As a Bay Area resident who enjoys frequent trips to our open coastline, one of my first introductions to SoCal was trying to find beach access.
    I must have turned into a hundred streets looking for an opening and all I could find was wall after wall after wall.
    It’s the same situation in some areas of Lake Tahoe.
    How is that the environmentalists are not going after these superhomes that sit right on the water?
    The “greens” and government go for the easy targets.

    Reply this comment
    • Mariate
      Mariate 21 September, 2020, 09:18

      I couldn’t agree more with this article. I am Sadly a victim of the California coastal commission. They abuse power All the time and belittle property owners. There is absolutely no sincere care for conservation any environmental lands it’s all about expanding their boundaries to gain more tax payer money. The more area they cover, the more we tax payers pay to their agency.

      Reply this comment
  5. kate
    kate 23 October, 2012, 17:57

    When 1 person writes with such ignorance and only speaks for herself and not for the millions who visit the coast as well as those millions who believe in environmental stewardship, then that one person is a minority voice and probably a very rich person that believes public land should be in private hands like the CEO Ellison…pl. pick up a shovel and clean the polluted lands and seas…give back rather than giving opinions for the few.

    Reply this comment
  6. 4Oceans
    4Oceans 24 October, 2012, 08:30

    Oh Grimes, where to start…. Perhaps you should actually attend a Coastal Commission meeting sometime, you might learn that they aren’t a rogue agency but required by law to act according to the California Coastal Act, a law passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 1972 that demands California protect beach access and coastal resources. Sure people who hate what it stands for hate the CCC …the coastal haters, the environment haters and the climate deniers… they all hate the CCC…. is that you Grimes??

    And Coastal Commissioners aren’t ‘unremarkable’ people either, they are volunteers who work hundreds of hours a month trying insure that polluters, real estate speculators and reckless yahoos don’t ruin our grandchildren’s opportunity to enjoy the coast, the goose that lays the golden eggs. And you hate them for that?

    As to your citations, they are bogus. The Sterlings bought a farm and wanted to subdivide it and build numerous homes. The CCC approved the mansion estate but sought to insure they didn’t carve up the rest of the farm. People who eat can appreciate the value of protecting coastal farms, right?

    And the Nollan case wasn’t about stopping the American Dream, it was about protecting those little paths between walls of beachfront mansions that line the coast in so many communities. You ever try to take your grandchildren to the beach Grimes?

    And PLF is a joke not a law firm. They have lost so many dozens of cases against the CCC in the last 20 years one wouldn’t even know where to start. You bring 100 cases and win 3, since when is that reason for praise? Oh yeah, ask PLF about how much money they spent trying to shoot fireworks at sea birds in Gualala…..

    Get a life Grimes, how about writing about real corruption…..

    Reply this comment
  7. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 24 October, 2012, 10:04

    4Oceans wrote, “the California Coastal Act, a law passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 1972.”

    Actually, it got 55.2 percent of the vote, which is strong, but not “overwhelming.”,_Creation_of_the_California_Coastal_Commission_(1972)

    But most of those who voted in that election now are dead. Yet we have to live with what they imposed on us. Initiatives should have to be reaffirmed every 10 years or so. The same with all laws passed by the Legislature.

    The current generation should not have to suffer under the tyrannies of past generations.

    — John Seiler

    Reply this comment
    • William W. Burns
      William W. Burns 11 May, 2014, 17:22

      To John Seiler:
      “Most of those who voted in that election are now dead. Yet we have to live with what they imposed on us.” Brillient observation, John. Oh, yes, not most, but all of those “old duffs” who wrote the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as well as the people who support these “old fashion” ideas are also, as you say, dead! And, I believe that 98% of all laws ever written were all done by “dead people.” And, since these law making people are now dead, their ideas are not worth a damned, right? I think you really have something here. Run with it. One good thing, howver, is that when the time comes when YOU are the old dead guy, then someone who is not born yet will be around to flush your moronic conclusions down the toilet.

      Reply this comment
      • John Seiler
        John Seiler 12 May, 2014, 07:13

        Mr. Burns wrote: “your moronic conclusions.”

        Someone finally figured me out.

        Reply this comment
      • Cy
        Cy 9 February, 2016, 06:46

        Mr. William Burns,
        I voted in 1972 for the CCC so we’re not all dead. But years later I regret, I really regret voting for the agency. Over the years I’ve seen the abuse first hand. I’ve heard their threats and the bullying and yes land grabbing.

        Reply this comment
    • Timmy
      Timmy 19 January, 2015, 19:19

      yes, well following that train of thought, we should put up a vote to repeal the 2nd Amendment. It’s not the 18th or 19th century where we need a militia to protect the security of the state. It should be a privilege to bear arms not a right.

      Reply this comment
  8. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 24 October, 2012, 10:24

    Here at Newport Beach the sky is really realy blue, Jaws is happy and swims in the clean surf waters, the sail boats are out and about….Lido Isle food joints loaded with happy breakfast customers!

    Why to desert rats and gloomers want to ruin our wonderful ocean and coastal resources?

    Reply this comment
  9. BobA
    BobA 24 October, 2012, 11:28

    To quote a line from Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged”: Government takes want it wants and taxes the rest.

    Unelected bureaucracies exist to serve their own purposes and to a large extent, insulated from the electoral process and answerable to no one but their department heads. They can do what they want whenever they want with near impunity.

    We all have our complaints about the various things the government does that we object to but given that our elected leaders insulate themselves from criticism by leaving it up to the various bureaucracies to impose draconian rules and regulations, there is virtually nothing we the people can do to stop them. In and of itself, that’s the beauty of a bureaucracy.

    Reply this comment
  10. Queeg
    Queeg 24 October, 2012, 15:44

    California is spinning right and left and we have a Plato telling us how to live our lives…..please!!!! No gov. worker is holding your hand or whipping you into shape….just pay the taxes and man up!

    Reply this comment
  11. BobA
    BobA 24 October, 2012, 16:52


    You are wrong. It’s pay your taxes and “shut” up. The needs of the government outweighs the needs of the individual. Therefore, the government is doing us a favor by letting us keep some of what we earn.

    Reply this comment
  12. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 24 October, 2012, 17:38

    Wow, Katy caught some heat here…………The CCC is known as a bully, but they have also protected the public in places liek malibu where beach access/easements have been blocked…but if you want to develop, or remodel, a beach front home the CCC holds you hostage, they won’t give you the permits without easements to the beach…..that is a very well documented fact.

    Reply this comment
  13. Dave Kendall
    Dave Kendall 25 October, 2012, 08:03

    How can we put the pressure on so that the Ca Coastal Com pays it’s own legal bills without taxpayer money? Aren’t we supposed to have a 2/3’s voter approval before we pay for things like this? Or did this start before 2/3’s became law?

    Reply this comment
    • William W. Burns
      William W. Burns 11 May, 2014, 17:35

      Yes, Dave, you are right. This all came about during some ancient time in our history when there was a real democracy where rule was once established through a simple majority based upon a 50/50 split. Oh, how much better the 2/3 majority is now, right? Oops, looks like there some times when there is a majority of people who want to change something is greater than the whole standby work-around 2/3 majority, the “sore losers” will be wanting to throw out the 2/3 majority to be replaced by a 3/4 majority. Oh, how sliperery and difficult to hold is that prized thing we call democracy as it slips through our hands.

      Reply this comment
  14. August West
    August West 26 October, 2012, 09:27

    “The Sterlings bought a farm and wanted to subdivide it and build numerous homes.”

    4Oceans just lied – they wanted to build only two houses for their family.

    Reply this comment
  15. Bubba
    Bubba 27 October, 2012, 14:46

    Seems to me the only thing missing is the “P”. As in Central Committee for the Communist Party!

    Reply this comment
  16. Douglas Jacobson
    Douglas Jacobson 31 October, 2012, 01:55

    Is there a conflict of interest in a member of the Commission who owns a business doing a job for pay by a charity that falls under the control of the Commission? If anyone can answer or point out where the answer can be found, please do so.

    Reply this comment
  17. Peter
    Peter 5 August, 2013, 08:36

    Oh boo hoo. You millionaires are so oppressed out there in california.

    Reply this comment
    • michael
      michael 10 January, 2016, 19:19

      This affects people who live up to five miles from the ocean who make less than $25,000 a year. A good many of the Areas where Millionaires live are exempt. Most likely the person who “wrote” it was…and he worked there 25 years running it?

      Reply this comment
  18. scooter
    scooter 29 March, 2014, 17:25

    I’m glad someone is fighting for the super rich, these people
    have been abused enough.

    Reply this comment
    • michael
      michael 10 January, 2016, 19:20

      This affects people who live up to five miles from the ocean who make less than $25,000 a year. A good many of the Areas where Millionaires live are exempt.

      Reply this comment
  19. Sean C.
    Sean C. 3 April, 2014, 10:24

    Unfortunately, this form seems to be focus on the have and the have nots, and that is definitely not the issue. The issue comes down to whether the CC actions to protect the coastal resources in the best interest of all the people, and implemented in a consistent legal and fair manner. Property owners have rights as do the general public. Regardless of where you live, do you believe the government has a right to force you to donate your property in order to build, or remodel? Worse, do you believe that the government should fine you upwards of 20k per month on a hillside property, not viewable from the street or ocean for non native trees that have been growing on your property for 80 years. Without a doubt, the CC needs oversight. Power leads to abuse, and without oversight they have developed new methods of generating revenue by abusing their power. While the idea of protecting the coast for everyone’s enjoyment is noble, i personally have heard of too many abuses and money grabs to be a fan of the Coastal Commissions approach. So when i see comments like boohoo for the rich, I immediately realize why the Coastal Commission can not be challenged, the majority of the population is not looking at the entire situation, and is looking out for only their interests (more beach access and public lands)
    If you were to apply the actions and tactics of the coastal commission to the entire state, this forum would not exist, as there would be either oversight or no Commission.

    Reply this comment
  20. E. Murray
    E. Murray 9 December, 2014, 16:46

    As with most discussions, this one has devolved into 100% one way or the other. The truth is, its good to make sure people have access to the beaches. The truth is the Coastal Commission was supposedly formed to accomplish this. The truth also is, they have strayed so far from that original mission. If you work your butt off, save, invest, and buy a property in the Coastal zone, you become afraid of the Commission. We bought a fixer upper, and are going to go through hell to do a remodel that will not touch any bare land, or affect beach access in any way. We pay property taxes and insurance for the whole property, but must provide a 10′ wide trail, 30′ up from the water. We can’t build a wall, fence or anything within 100′ of the high tide mark. We can’t plant a lemon tree on the property without a permit. This is not a huge property, but a little more than 40% of this property is taken from us. I agree that people should be able to walk along the beach, but give us a tax break or buy the land you are taking away from us. Don’t get involved in what color we paint our house, what windows we use, etc. don’t make us wait 2 years to do a simple remodel. Even our city planning department thinks they are out of control. Its the old adage about absolute power corrupting.

    Reply this comment
  21. TheLionS
    TheLionS 7 February, 2017, 17:04

    I’m researching for my brother, bullied by the Coastal Commission for decades which was the only non relenting harassment in his life. Why? take land from him. He bought it as a distraught, ugly lot being used as a dump site after a previous structure had been burnt to the ground. He cleaned it up, fixed it up, fire proofed the area and turned it into a beautiful, peaceful, clean space.

    Today he is fighting every day to stay alive from a strange cancer. I blame the stress imposed on him by the Coastal Commission all of these years for his cancer. The fines, easement problems, threats were, and still are, INSANE. The amount of money he has had to spend on lawyers to keep this one lot for his family’s enjoyment, to have a space away from town where he can just breathe, in INSANE. It is unfair. It’s not right. They are unconscionable.

    What does the Declaration of Independence say?…”Certain undeniable rights…Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” ..unless you live in California and are targeted by the CCC. They own you, they own your land. They own your pursuit of happiness. They lie, they make things up that are not true, they behave in an alien manner, not in a human, humane or American way.

    Do let me know if you can help me with a connection or an effective lawyer for this topic. Thank you. God Bless!

    Reply this comment
  22. Bill
    Bill 17 March, 2021, 15:21

    cal costal trying one more time to eliminate OHV use at Oceano Pismo dunes on the 18th of June

    Reply this comment

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