In McAllister v. California Coastal Commission, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 6 Dist., Dec. 30, 2008), a California Court of Appeal considered whether the approval of a coastal development permit violated the applicable coastal development regulations and public policies behind those regulations. The Court of Appeal concluded that the agency’s approval did violate the regulations and public policies and the court directed the agency to hold another hearing to make appropriate findings consistent with its decision.
In 1977, the California Coastal Commission (“Coastal Commission”) granted a development permit to Donald Sorensen to build a house on two adjoining parcels on the Big Sur coast in Monterey County, California. The permit required that Sorensen consolidate the two parcels before beginning construction. Sorensen started construction on the house without consolidating the two parcels, then later abandoned the project.
In 1999, subsequent owners sold the two parcels to Sheldon Laube and Doctor Nancy Engel (“Laube and Engel”). Some of Sorensen’s development efforts remained upon Laube and Engel’s purchase. In 2001, Laube and Engel applied to the Monterey County Planning Commission (“Planning Commission”) for a permit to build a house and merge the two parcels (the “Project”). The Project was approved by the Big Sur Land Use Advisory Committee with certain conditions concerning outside lighting and the removal of invasive vegetation.
Doctor Hugh McAllister (“McAllister”), the owner of a neighboring piece of property, objected to the Project as proposed by Laube and Engel. In response, Laube and Engel redesigned and relocated the proposed house and submitted a revised permit application. The Big Sur Land Use Advisory Committee approved the redesign and in October 2003, the Planning Commission approved the Project. McAllister appealed the decision to the County Board of Supervisors where it upheld the permit. McAllister then appealed the Board of Supervisors’ decision to the Coastal Commission. After several administrative hearings and findings, a trial court eventually denied McAllister’s petition, and McAllister appealed.
This appeal raises myriad issues. The California Court of Appeal began its decision with a discussion of the California Coastal Act (“the Act”) and the policies it was intended to protect. The court explained that the Act was designed to “protect, maintain, and, where feasible, enhance and restore the overall quality of the coastal zone environment and its natural and artificial resources.” It is the responsibility of local governments and the Coastal Commission to work together to ensure that these ends are met. The County of Monterey adopted a local coastal program to supplement the Act on a local level.
Further, the court discussed conformance with the habitat policies outlined in the Act and the County of Monterey’s local version. Essentially, the Act and the local version required any proposed development to meet strict guidelines provided in the Act and local program with significant deference lent to the protection of coastal areas.
The Court of Appeal reviewed the Coastal Commission’s findings in connection with its approval of the Project. The court found that the Coastal Commission concluded the Project would have a negative impact on two habitat areas subject to protection by the Act. Nonetheless, the Coastal Commission decided that the Project conformed to habitat area policies because mitigation measures built into the approval reduced the impacts to a level of insignificance.
McAllister argued that the Coastal Commission erred when it found that the Project conformed to habitat area policies because it was not a resource-dependent use. Examples of resource dependent uses are “nature education and research, hunting, fishing, and aquaculture.” Laube and Engel contended that the Project conformed with habitat area policies because “(1) disruption of the two habitat areas was limited to what was necessary to build the Project, and (2) mitigation measures reduced disruption of the habitat areas [to] a level of insignificance.”
The Court of Appeal discussed at length various interpretations of the relevant language of the Act which dictated how the court would resolve the arguments presented by McAllister, Laube and Engel. The court finally agreed with McAllister’s interpretation that the Act limited development of habitat areas to resource dependent uses and that limiting disruption to what is necessary to build the Project was not the standard provided by the Act. Based on further statutory analysis, the court said that the Coastal Commission could not have found, based on the record the Coastal Commission presented to support its findings, that the Project was in fact a resource dependent use. The court also rejected a number of arguments presented by Laube and Engel which attempted to fit the Project under specific exceptions in the Act.
The Coastal Commission took a different position from Laube and Engel and argued that it was excused from strict conformance with habitat policies to avoid a taking under the Constitution. The Constitution proscribes the government from taking property without providing just compensation. In this case, the Coastal Commission argued that an application of the Act here amounts to a taking because Laube and Engel would not be able to develop their residential parcels due to the application of the government regulation. The court was not persuaded by the Coastal Commission’s argument because in reviewing the record presented, the Commission never discussed a possible Constitutional violation for taking. Therefore, consideration of a Constitutional violation for taking was never part of the Coastal Commissions justification for approving the project.
As a result, the Court of Appeal found that the Coastal Commission’s findings to approve the Project did not satisfy the Act or the local regulations adopted by the County of Monterey. Consequently, the court concluded that the approval of the Project could not stand and the court directed the Coastal Commission to hold a new hearing where it could consider the taking issue and make appropriate findings.
McAllister made additional arguments, contending that the Coastal Commission misapplied the Act’s provisions protecting scenic and visual resources and also incorrectly applied certain exemption area policies to the Project. The court dismissed McAllister’s arguments finding instead that the Coastal Commission properly interpreted the Act in its application to the Project.
In conclusion, the Court of Appeal found that approval of the Project proposed by Laube and Engel was an error by the Coastal Commission because the Act required development of habitat areas for resource dependent use, and the Project did not, and could not conform to this standard. Moreover, the Coastal Commission did not properly consider the Constitutional violation of taking as justification for approval of the Project, so the court directed the Coastal Commission to hold further hearings consistent with its opinion. Finally, the Court of Appeal rejected a number of arguments presented by McAllister in connection with scenic and visual resources and exemption area policies, and instead found that the Commission had properly applied the Act to these areas of consideration.
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