California Court of Appeal Holds that Required Coastal Easement Dedication is an Unconstitutional Taking

In a victory for the Pacific Legal Foundation, the California Court of Appeal applied the US Supreme Court’s unconstitutional conditions doctrine—as stated in Nollan and Dolan—to a required easement dedication in San Luis Obispo County.

The case, Sandra Bowman v. California Coastal Commission, arose out of an application by a property owner for a coastal development permit to connect an existing well to an uninhabitable residence about a mile from the shoreline. The property owner owned about 400 acres in San Luis Obispo County, including a mile of shoreline.

The owner died before the County approved his coastal development permit, which was ultimately conditioned upon a requirement to dedicate a lateral easement for public access along the shorefront of the property. The property’s new owner, a family trust, did not appeal the condition in the required fourteen days.

But nine months later, the family trust applied to the County for a second coastal development permit, which included—at the County’s suggestion—construction of a barn to replace the existing barn, which had collapsed. The trust’s permit application also included remodel of the existing residence, connection to an existing well, and installation of a new septic system—all approved in the first coast development permit. Notably, however, the application also requested removal of the lateral coastal access easement from the first coastal development permit.

San Luis Obispo County approved the application for the second coastal development permit, including removal of the easement, perhaps recognizing that the easement was on shaky legal and constitutional ground.

The Sierra Club, among others, however, appealed the County’s approval of this second permit, arguing that the County had eliminated a valid existing easement condition from the first permit. The California Coastal Commission accepted jurisdiction of the dispute and held that the easement condition from the first permit is permanent and binding on the property owner and that removing the easement would violate the public policy favoring public access to coastal resources. The family trust then appealed.

The California Court of Appeal acknowledged that when the family trust failed to appeal the easement requirement from the initial permit within fourteen days, the general rule would apply collateral estoppel to forbid later challenges. That is, “Failure to pursue administrative mandamus precludes litigation of claims that were actually litigated in a prior proceeding or that could have been litigated.” This is a great reminder that if you want to obtain relief in court, in most cases you must first seek administrative relief.

The Court in this case, however, held that under the specific facts of the case, “application of collateral estoppel gives primacy to a procedure rule that creates an unjust result and subverts the fair application of the California Coastal Act of 1976.”

The Court seemed to view this case as a straightforward application of the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, as applied to takings. Generally speaking, governments may not attach conditions to permits that lack an “essential nexus” and “rough proportionality” between the permitted work and the condition. Here, the Court held that there “is no rational nexus, no less rough proportionality, between the work on a private residence a mile from the coast and a lateral public access easement.”

This case is a victory for property rights and a reminder that even though states and local governments possess significant land-use power, their authority is not limitless.

If you need help with a land-use dispute or other litigation, we may be able to assist you. Bona Law PC is a boutique law firm that focuses on real-estate and business litigation, as well as appeals, antitrust, and challenges to government conduct. You can contact us at 858-964-4589 or info@bonalawpc.com.