Law Review: California Coastal Commission fines Malibu beach front owner
The California Coastal Commission enforces the California Coastal Act which gives the public rights to access the coast.
Tidelands – lands between the high tide and low tide – are held by the state in trust for the general public to use. As such, the Coastal Commission often exacts public access easements over beachfront landowners seeking to develop their parcels, which gives rise to our case today Warren M. Lent v. California Coastal Commission.
The Court of Appeal started its Opinion: “A house sits on beachfront property in Malibu. A 5-foot-wide vertical easement, owned by the California Coastal Conservancy for public access to the coast, encumbers one side of the property…”
Back in the 80s the owner of the property built a large beachfront house including a deck for private access to the beach directly over the 5-foot public access easement. Worse yet, the property owner installed a gate blocking public access. The improvements built within the easement were not duly permitted. Warren and Henny Lent purchased the property and continued to deny access to the public. In 2007 the Commission began asking the Lents to remove the structures built within the 5-foot access easement. They refused and Commission staff let the Lents know they could be penalized up to $8,370,000. Following an administrative hearing where Commission staff recommended a lower penalty, the Coastal Commission ultimately imposed a penalty against the Lents of $4,185,000.
MALIBU OWNER CHALLENGES COASTAL COMMISSION
The Lents sued challenging the hefty penalty. The matter ultimately made it to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal. The Lents argued the legal doctrine known as “laches” barred the Commission’s actions because the Commission unreasonably delayed to their prejudice. The Court of Appeal disagreed saying the Commission had consistently maintained that the improvements over the easement had to be removed. The Lents also argued they did not have adequate notice of the penalty because staff had recommended a significantly lower penalty, but the Court of Appeal concluded otherwise noting the Lents were informed the penalty could be as much as $8,370,000.
COURT RULES FOR COASTAL COMMISSION
The Court of Appeal concluded the Lents had flagrantly disregarded the law by refusing to remove the unpermitted structures blocking access. They were ordered to remove the improvements over the easement and the $4,185,000 penalty was upheld.
Given the facts I agree with the Court’s decision. If you buy valuable property burdened with a public access easement, you better be prepared to pay the price if you deny access. This high profile case had many amicus curiae briefs filed on both sides.
FOOTNOTE: The house is on the market for $5,695,000, should be enough to cover the penalty.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com
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