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Coastal Commission Public Access Condition Held Invalid

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By:  Sean M. Sherlock

On October 23, 2014, the California Court of Appeal invalidated a coastal development permit condition requiring a property owner to dedicate an easement for public access across her property.  The case relied in part on U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Nollan and Dolan cases, but was primarily based upon the Court’s refusal to apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel to bind plaintiff to the permit condition.

In Bowman v. California Coastal Commission — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2014 WL 5390057 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., Oct. 23, 2014), plaintiff landowner filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission challenging a public access condition in a coastal development permit.  The trial court ruled in favor of the Commission, but the Court of Appeal reversed.

In 2002, Walton Emmerick applied for a coastal development permit to connect a water well to his house.  The well and house were located approximately one mile from the shoreline on Emmerick’s 400-acre coastal property.  Emmerick died before the permit was issued.  Plaintiff succeeded to the property.  The County approved the coastal development permit in 2004, on condition that the owner dedicate a lateral easement for public access along the shorefront portion of the property.  Plaintiff, who owned the property at the time the permit was issued, did not appeal the permit condition.

Nine months later, plaintiff applied for a new coastal development permit to replace an existing collapsed barn with a new barn, and to perform other work covered under the prior permit.  The permit application also requested removal of the public access condition in the prior permit.  The County approved the application, including the removal of the public access condition.  Environmental groups appealed the County’s decision to the Coastal Commission, which approved the permit but refused to remove the public access condition.

The Court first addressed the constitutional issues presented under the Nollan/Dolan test.  In the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) 483 U.S. 825, and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994) 512 U.S. 374, the Court held that a government entity may not condition a permit on an uncompensated exaction unless there is a “rational nexus” between the permit condition and the project’s impact on the public, and the condition is “roughly proportional” to the project’s impact.  In this case, the Court quickly dispensed with this issue, finding neither a rational nexus nor rough proportionality between the repair and replacement work occurring a mile from the shoreline and a requirement to dedicate an easement to the public along the shoreline.

The Commission argued, however, that the permit condition was already final and binding as a result of plaintiff’s failure to appeal it in the prior permit.  The Court held that the doctrine which would bind plaintiff to the prior condition – collateral estoppel – is an equitable doctrine which only applies if equity favors its application.  Under the circumstances of the case, the Court found it inequitable to bind plaintiff to the prior condition considering that the repairs that were the subject to the prior permit did not technically require a coastal development permit, and that the imposition of the condition in the prior permit was unconstitutional under the Nollan/Dolan standards.  Accordingly, the Court held the public access condition invalid.