State Supreme Court rules against property owners in seawall case

State Supreme Court rules against property owners in seawall case
The state Supreme Court ruled 7-0 against the Encinitas property owners in the seawall case, Lynch v. California Coastal Commission. File photo

A pair of Encinitas property owners can’t challenge the Coastal Commission’s restrictions on their Neptune Avenue seawall because they forfeited the right to do so, the California Supreme Court has ruled.

In a 7-0 decision, the Supreme Court sidestepped some of the larger issues at play in the case Lynch v. California Coastal Commission. Thomas Frick and Barbara Lynch sought to challenge the regulatory agency’s imposition of a 20-year expiration date on their permit for a seawall they built after the old structure collapsed during a 2010 storm.

The court ruled that by building the seawall, the residents lost their right to sue the state.

“In conclusion, although plaintiffs filed an administrative mandate petition, they forfeited their objections by constructing the project,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the court’s decision. “Without an express agreement with the agency providing otherwise, landowners who object to permit conditions…must litigate their objections in an administrative mandate proceeding before constructing the permitted project. 

“Landowners who proceed with a project before the merits of their claims have been decided risk a finding that their objections were forfeited,” Corrigan wrote. 

The families were applying for a permit to build a 100-foot-tall, state-of-the-art concrete seawall to replace their aging wooden one and rebuild the private staircase from their homes to the beach below, after storms in 2010 largely wiped out both structures.

The city of Encinitas approved their applications, but the Coastal Commission stepped in and denied the permit for the staircase and would only allow the families to rebuild the wall with the 20-year stipulation, to which the families agreed.

The Coastal Commission argued that by agreeing to the conditions, the families waived their rights to sue. The families contend they signed the documents under protest and duress, as not signing them would delay the construction of the seawall and put their homes in peril.

The state high court decided to review the case in October 2014, a step that signaled the case’s significance: the high court in 2013 granted only 61 of the 4,182 review petitions received and rejected 4,032 requests.

Prior to the Supreme Court review, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — by way of a 2-1 reversal of a lower court ruling — has sided with the Coastal Commission in its 2014 argument that it has broad discretionary authority over the regulating the structures.

Superior Court Judge Earl Maas ruled a year earlier that the state commission overstepped its authority when it applied a clause imposing the time limit. 

The Supreme Court’s decision was published, meaning that it has binding precedent for similar cases in the future, but won’t have the far-reaching implications that activists on both sides of the issue had hoped for when the high court accepted the case for review. 

Environmental groups had sided with the state in its bid to preserve its authority to regulate the barriers, while property rights groups had hoped the court would rule that the state commission overreached when it imposed the time limit on the structure. 

“Because we determine plaintiffs‟ claims have been forfeited, we do not decide the legality of the challenged conditions,” Corrigan wrote in the ruling. 

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