In Benson v. California Coastal Commission (2006 Daily Journal D.A.R. 5614, Cal.App. 2 Dist., May 9, 2006), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a developer’s right to due process was violated when he received misleading advice from the commission’s staff about what was likely to happen at a commission hearing, and because of that advice decided not to attend. The developer also claimed his written notice of the hearing was inadequate because it did not specify what issues would be considered at the hearing.
The Court ruled that the developer was not denied due process because he could not reasonably rely on staff recommendations and comments to predict a commission decision, and that written notice of a hearing need not specify precisely what issues would be considered at the hearing.
John Benson (“Benson”) owned a hotel within the coastal zone of San Luis Obispo County (“County”). He applied to the County for an expansion of his hotel. The County’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors approved the expansion. “Concerned Citizens of Los Osos,” a group which opposed the expansion, appealed the County decision to the California Coastal Commission (“Commission”), alleging that it violated the County’s Local Coastal Program.
The Commission set a hearing on the appeal for May 8, 2003 to determine whether a substantial issue existed. The Commission staff issued a report recommending that the public hearing be continued to provide adequate time to analyze the issue. Staff informed Benson that because of that recommendation, it would probably not be necessary for him to attend the hearing.
The morning of the hearing, May 8, the California Court of Appeal filed Encinitas Country Day School, Inc. v. California Coastal Commission (2003) 108 Cal.App. 4th 575)), in which it ruled that the Commission lost jurisdiction when it failed to determine whether a substantial issue exists within 49 days of opening an appeal. To avoid exceeding that 49-day limitation, the Commission staff then changed its recommendation to a finding that the appeal raised substantial issues. At the May 8 hearing, at which neither Benson nor anyone else appeared in support or opposition to the appeal, the Commission found the appeal raised substantial issues and continued the matter for a de novo hearing.
Benson sued, alleging he was denied due process because of the misleading advice he was given by staff, and because his written notice of the meeting did not specify what issues would be considered. The trial court ruled that because Benson’s notice of the meeting was adequate, and the staff’s report and comments were simply a recommendation, his due process right was not violated. Benson appealed.
First, the Court found the Commission’s written notice to Benson was adequate because it included a copy of the appeal. There was no need to specify the issues of the appeal because Benson had participated in the County proceedings and was therefore obviously aware of the issues. “Actual notice satisfies due process,” the Court said.
Additionally, the Court ruled, in spite of staff’s initial recommendation to continue the issue, and its advice to Benson that he probably need not attend the hearing, Benson knew or should have known that the staff recommendation was not binding on the Commission. The Court said, “Nothing guaranteed the Commission would not proceed.”
The Legislature has empowered the Commission, not its staff, the power to decide whether a substantial issue exists to support an appeal, the Court said. “Under the circumstances, he could not reasonably rely on staff comments predicting what action the Commission would take.”
Accordingly, the Court concluded Benson was not denied due process and the trial court judgment was affirmed.
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