Coastal Commission's Public Access Easement Found to Be A Taking

In a published decision, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District rejected the California Coastal Commission's ("Commission") collateral estoppel argument and found that there is no rational nexus or rough proportionality between the work proposed by an applicant on a private residence a mile from the coast and a lateral public access easement imposed by the Commission as a condition of approval.  Accordingly, the easement condition amounted to an unconstitutional taking.  (Bowman v. Cal. Coastal Com. (Oct. 23, 2014).)

In 2002, the property owner of 400 acres in San Luis Obispo County submitted a Coastal Development Permit application to the County in order to connect an existing well to an existing, but uninhabited residence.  The property owner subsequently revised the application to also include the replacement of an existing septic tank and the rehabilitation of the residence.  In 2004, approximately a year after the property owner had died, the County approved the Coastal Development Permit.  The approval of the permit, however, was conditioned on the current owner's ("SDS") dedicating a lateral easement for public access along the shorefront portion of the property.  The stated basis for the condition was that the residence had not been occupied for several years and its occupation would therefore increase the intensity of the property's use.  SDS did not appeal the imposition of the condition, although the notice of approval stated that SDS had 14 days to file an appeal.

Instead, approximately nine months later, SDS filed a new Coastal Development Permit application covering all of the activities approved in the prior permit, along with the construction of a new barn to replace the existing barn that had collapsed.  SDS also requested that the County remove the condition from the prior permit requiring the dedication of a lateral public access easement.  After the County approved the new application, along with the removal of the condition, the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation appealed the County's approval to the California Coastal Commission.

On appeal, the Commission found that the easement condition was permanent and binding on the landowner, and that removal of the easement condition would violate public policy.  Accordingly, the Commission reinstituted the easement condition.

SDS challenged the Coastal Commission's decision in court, arguing that the easement condition constituted an unlawful exaction under Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) 483 U.S. 825 and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994) 512 U.S. 374.  The Commission, declining to address the takings issue head-on, argued that the legal challenge by SDS was barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel because SDS failed to appeal the original County approval imposing the easement condition.  The Court of Appeal made short work of this argument, however, explaining that under the instant facts, "application of collateral estoppel gives primacy to a procedural rule that creates an unjust result and subverts the fair application of the California Coastal Act of 1976."

Thus, as SDS had neither acted under or accepted the benefits of the prior approval, and because the easement condition amounted to an unconstitutional exaction, the Court of Appeal held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel could not be applied to immunize the Commission's imposition of the unlawful condition.

  • Benjamin Z. Rubin

    Ben Rubin is chair of Nossaman’s Environment & Land Use Group. Ben assists developers, public agencies, landowners and corporate clients on a variety of complex land use and environmental matters. He counsels clients on matters ...

California Eminent Domain Report is a one-stop resource for everything new and noteworthy in eminent domain. We cover all aspects of eminent domain, including condemnation, inverse condemnation and regulatory takings. We also keep track of current cases, project announcements, budget issues, legislative reform efforts and report on all major eminent domain conferences and seminars in the Western United States.

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