Five years ago, Tom and Pat Randa told the California Coastal Commission "to take a flying leap," as Tom Randa puts it.
In 1980, the couple defied the commission by grading its remote mountain property in Agoura without seeking a coastal development permit. The state received a court order to halt the grading and filed suit against the Randas for alleged violation of the state Coastal Act.
Although the case still languishes in court, the Coastal Commission earlier this month granted the Randas a "minor boundary adjustment" that removes their five-acre parcel from the coastal zone. The boundary change, which puts development of the property beyond commission scrutiny, was approved by a 6-4 vote, despite warnings from the commission staff and environmentalists that the move could set a troublesome precedent.
The commission has discretion to exclude property that lies partially beyond the coastal zone, which the Randas contended is the case with their lot.
Made Correct Decision
"I'm glad they did what was right," Tom Randa, a building contractor and part-time actor, said of the decision. "I thought that it should have been a unanimous vote in my favor."
Although some commissioners since have said they were led to believe the change would not trigger development of the land, the Randas have obtained a building permit from Los Angeles County and have broken ground on a home. The couple had refused to submit building plans to the commission, contending that the state panel has no legal jurisdiction on the property.
Randa said he has been battling government agencies for years to build the home. "This is a life dream for me," he said.
Opponents of the boundary change, including environmental groups and the National Park Service, had argued that the commission should not surrender to the county the commission's power to set conditions that would minimize erosion and protect the beauty of the tract, which borders state and federal parklands.
'Enormously Better Job'
"The Coastal Commission has done an enormously better job of planning in these remote brush-covered areas" than has Los Angeles County, said David Brown, a Calabasas environmentalist.
Brown also said it was inappropriate for the commission to exempt Randa's property from the coastal zone with the alleged grading violation "still sitting there unresolved in the courts. . . ."
"Essentially here's a guy who broke the speed limit, and then he went to the judge and asked him to change the speed limit," Brown said.
The boundary adjustment also was criticized by officials of the National Park Service, which is putting together the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "Other developers could use similar arguments to get their property excluded from the coastal zone," said Dan Kuehn, superintendent of the recreation area.
Some commissioners said they feel sympathy for Randa, who made an impassioned speech about his suffering at the hands of government agencies during hearings on the issue.
"I bought this piece (of) property hoping that, since I couldn't afford a home, I would be able to build one for my family," Randa said. "The Indians got a reservation that they got pushed into. I got the street."
Commission Chairman Michael Wornum, who voted for the request, said he does not "feel bound in any way" to approve future boundary-change requests just because the Randa request was granted.
Wornum also described the controversy as "somewhat of a storm in a teacup," because a single home is all that would be allowed on the parcel under the regulations of either the Coastal Commission or Los Angeles County.
Wornum expressed surprise at learning that the Randas immediately obtained a county building permit and began work on their home.
Thought Sale Was Planned
He and two other commissioners said in interviews that they believed, based on testimony by the Randas, that the couple sought the boundary change to speed the sale of the land to the National Park Service or state Department of Parks and Recreation. Both agencies have listed the tract for eventual acquisition. It is unclear how construction of a home on the land would affect their plans.
However, the hearing transcript shows that Tom Randa, in an ambiguous statement of his intentions, did not promise to refrain from building on the land. Also, he did not promise to sell it--which he now says he is unwilling to do.
"I'm not going to get to live on my property," Randa told the panel. "They have already explained this to me. . . .
"All you are doing is making the Park Service either buy me, or let me go on with my life."
On Jan. 9--two days after the commission vote in San Francisco--Tom Randa walked into Los Angeles County offices with a tape of the meeting and left with a building permit. No environmental conditions were attached to the permit, according to Roslyn Robson, public affairs officer with the county Department of Public Works.
Randa, 40, who has lived most of his life in the San Fernando Valley, said he hopes to finish his house within a few months. "I've been wanting to do this since I was a little kid."
Michael Crow, the deputy attorney general representing the commission in the grading suit, said the boundary change does not automatically void the lawsuit. But he said he will ask the commission soon if it wants the case dropped.
The Randa property is in steep mountain country about a mile southwest of Malibu Lake. It is accessible only through Malibu Creek State Park over steep fire trails.
The property borders the Kaslow Natural Preserve, a particularly scenic area of the state park with abundant plant and wildlife, including a golden eagle nesting site. Within a quarter-mile is the Backbone Trail for hikers and equestrians, which eventually will trace the spine of the Santa Monicas between Will Rogers and Point Mugu State Parks.
The Randa property commands a spectacular view. From their land, located partly in a dip between peaks, fog and cloud banks slide across a craggy skyline that spreads majestically to the east.
The Randas say the coastal zone in the Santa Monicas was improperly extended a full five miles from the ocean--contrary, they say, to the intent of the coastal act to place the boundary on a ridge much closer to the beach. In 1979, the state Senate adopted a bill to adopt the ridge-line boundary, but the measure failed in the Assembly.
Nonetheless, the Randas have maintained that their property--and thousands of other lots--are not legally in the coastal zone. In September, 1980, two years after acquiring their land, they began grading without a coastal permit.
Court Order Obtained
"We really, in our hearts, felt we were right or we wouldn't take on the state," Pat Randa said.
The state attorney general's office got a court order halting the grading and charged the Randas with violations of the Coastal Act, which are punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and another $50 to $5,000 for each day the violations continue.
The Randas filed a countersuit, accusing the state of using a "false and erroneous" coastal boundary to deprive coastal property owners of the use of private lands so that state and federal parks agencies could buy them for less.
The Randas also contended that the five-mile coastal boundary, in addition to being "erroneous," actually cut across their land. The case was scheduled for trial last September in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
But a few days before the trial, lawyers for both sides reached an agreement that the Randas should first exhaust their administrative remedies by requesting a boundary adjustment.
The Coastal Commission can approve minor boundary changes when property is bisected by the coastal boundary.
In the opinion of the commission staff, the entire Randa parcel was within the coastal zone. Even if it weren't, the staff said, a boundary change was unwise in such an environmentally sensitive area.
But a surveyor hired by the Randas testified at the hearing that the coastal boundary indeed cut across a corner of the property.
"It kind of seemed, really, that they (the Randas) were being held hostage in some respects," said commission Vice Chairman Leo King, who voted for the boundary change.
But King said the commission understood that the Randas "would not be developing the property", which "hopefully . . . would be acquired by the state."
The boundary change did not extinguish Tom Randa's bitterness. He is, he says, in an "an out-and-out war" with parks agencies and environmental groups--who he accused of "trying to take what's mine without paying."
Just now, he's involved in an unusual skirmish with the National Park Service.
Last May, the Park Service bought the 40-acre parcel that abuts the Randas' tract on the north for the national recreation area.
The Randas had been storing a trailer, shed and construction material on the land by arrangement with the prior owner.
The Park Service wanted the possessions moved, and offered to pay relocation expenses.
But the trailer is still there. The Randas rejected an offer of about $4,500, saying it did not cover the full range of moving costs, including grading of a new site for the trailer. The Randas submitted a claim for about $25,000.
Park Service officials said that under federal guidelines, they could not pay all costs claimed by the Randas because the trailer was not their home.
The Randas have since claimed the trailer as a principal residence. The couple rents a home in Sonoma, but Tom Randa says he frequently stays in the trailer when working in Los Angeles.
John Costello, a realty specialist for the national recreation area, said he has no proof that the trailer was a residence. "I've been up there on any number of occasions, and it's been vacant," he said.
Appealed the Matter
The Randas have appealed the matter to the Department of Interior's Office of Hearings and Appeals in Washington, D. C.
While the Randa trailer remains on federal land, the Randas won't allow the Park Service to cross their property to reach the federal tract, which is only accessible by road through the Randas' land.
In a memo in Park Service files, John Costello said that when he complained about the access problem to Tom Randa last summer, Randa suggested that he climb a steep hillside to get to the federal tract.
"He referred to this hillside as a rattlesnake breeding ground," Costello said.
The Randas have carried the battle to the political arena as well. Pat Randa, 30, until recently served on the staff of the National Inholders Assn., which represents landowners surrounded by government-managed lands.
She said she is now executive director of the Citizens Land Alliance, a similar property rights group active in the Bay Area.
Nominated for Post
In 1981, Pat Randa was nominated by county Supervisor Mike Antonovich to a seat on the board of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency set up to help the Park Service buy land for the national recreation area. Randa, who supported then-Interior Secretary James G. Watt's bid to halt the growth of the mountain park, withdrew her name.
Joseph M. Gughemetti, the Randa's lawyer and president of a property rights foundation called the American Land Alliance, said the couple has had a hard time because of these political involvements.
"(Pat) Randa was the one always at hearings saying the little property owner is getting screwed," Gughemetti said. "She's got a political track record of opposing the very people who are going after her."
As Tom Randa sees it, "The American dream is owning your own place with your family." The mountain site "was my choice for my American dream. . . .
"I didn't move up there to ruin the place," he said. The house "is going to blend into the surroundings so you won't even know it's there. . . .
"I hope to win awards with what I'm going to build."