SAN CLEMENTE – A judge has ruled that the state agency responsible for overseeing land use and public access to the California coast overreached when it tried to force a beachfront homeowner to waive his rights to repair and maintain a rock wall that protects his and other homes from erosion and storms.
A San Clemente family trying to replace an old mobile home with a new one sued the California Coastal Commission for allegedly violating California’s Coastal Act and the California and U.S. Constitutions because the commission included a condition on a necessary permit that would have stopped them from repairing or replacing a seawall that runs the length of the mobile home park.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Theodore R. Howard determined the waiver “seems unreasonably broad” and out of step with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Larry Salzman, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who represented the family in the case, said the ruling is a “major victory” for property owners in the state, starting with the Wills.
“It means their property is more secure and the value of their home is likely to be preserved over time,” Salzman told the Northern California Record.
Eric Wills and his family own a beachfront mobile home in the Capistrano Shores Mobile Home Park in San Clemente. In 2014, they bought a new, slightly smaller but mostly identical home to replace the old one that had been on the property for 40 years. The process of replacing the home, which should have taken about a week, was dragged out for nearly a year when the commission determined the Wills needed a coastal development permit.
When the Wills were granted approval to replace their mobile home, permission came with a caveat: They’d have to waive their rights to repair or maintain a seawall that protects the mobile home park from erosion and storms.
The commission’s concern is that eventually the seawall will have to be expanded toward the public beach, which it hopes to prevent because of the impact it will have on accessibility. The commission has the authority to set restrictions and conditions on permits to reduce a development project’s impact on public resources, including public beaches. But Wills’ attorneys argued that the California constitution guarantees property owners’ right to protect their property. Additionally, the Coastal Act includes seawalls as a viable way to protect against erosion and storms.
“The case is basically a conflict between the interests of the private person versus the public interest sought to be discharged by the coastal commission. However, it appears to the court that the (property owner) has the better arguments under the facts here,” Howard wrote in his ruling dated Aug. 22.
The judge found that the commission could take a different course of action, “rather than compelling what appears to be a preemptive waiver of any rights.” His suggestion includes requiring residents to acknowledge that future expansions or alterations must consider private and public interests. But in this case, the Wills’ application doesn’t involve any alterations because the new mobile home fits the pre-existing site.
“Therefore, it seems unreasonable to require a waiver from this applicant of this magnitude,” Howard wrote.
The commission has about 90 days to take any next step to appeal or submit to the judge’s ruling. Salzman said the Wills’ new mobile home is already in place on the property after both parties agreed to abide by a court ruling over whether they have to give up their rights. He said they’re gratified by the judge’s ruling.
“They just took a big risk and went forward to put their new home on the lot without really knowing if it would be secure in the long haul,” Salzman said.
The commission has made it a common practice to require California property owners to submit to the condition at issue in this case, he added.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest property rights law firm, took up the Wills’ case as part of its ongoing effort to monitor the coastal commission, which they’ve seen “overreaching its authority” on numerous occasions.
He hopes this lawsuit will stop the commission’s inclusion of this waiver.
“It’s probably too late for people who have agreed to this waiver in the past,” Salzman said. “Our hope is that the commission would take this ruling very seriously and reconsider the conditions it places on property owners going forward.”