Decision May Force Changes in Access Rules

Times Staff Writers

The U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring invalid a California Coastal Commission requirement on access to the beach promises to alter the rules by which local governments can force developers to provide a variety of services and amenities before being permitted to develop property.

In the ruling handed down Friday, the Supreme Court said that the Coastal Commission could not force Ventura County property owners Patrick and Marilyn Nollan to grant public access to the beach in return for a building permit. The court conceded the commission's authority to impose conditions but said those conditions must serve as a direct remedy to any environmental or social problems posed by the development.

At Coastal Commission headquarters in San Francisco, officials said they expect the ruling to have only a limited impact on their agency, contending that most requirements imposed by the commission would satisfy the court's new standards.

In fact, the officials said, the confirmation of the general principle of exacting requirements in exchange for building permits eventually may work to the commission's advantage.

"It will not undo past actions. We are confident that in most cases we can continue to protect the right of the public to get to the beach," said Commission Chairman Michael Wornum.

Strong Impact Seen

However, state officials said the ruling may have a strong impact on the system that local governments have used increasingly over the last decade to obtain urban amenities.

Under the system, developers have been required to provide a wide range of services and donations in return for the right to develop large, commercial properties. In many cases, the concessions have had little relationship to the burdens imposed by the developments on the communities.

For example, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1985 required the developers of large office buildings to provide on-site child care or pay $1 per square foot to a city child care fund. More recently, Los Angeles exacted a promise of nearly $50 million from a developer to rebuild the Central Library before it would grant a high-rise permit.

Future Negotiations

Developers and their lawyers might seize on Friday's Supreme Court ruling in future negotiations over such requirements.

"I think cities would be well-advised to rethink what they're doing in instances like this," said Michael Berger, a Los Angeles attorney representing the National Assn. of Home Builders.

Berger noted that such requirements began with home subdivisions; local governments often required the builders to provide roads and sewers for the communities. "That made sense," Berger said. "Building the houses creates the needs for these other things."

But as Proposition 13 eroded the financial resources of cities and counties, urban officials increasingly turned to developers to finance amenities that their budgets could not provide. Eventually, Berger contends, the demands often had little or no relationship to the projects themselves.

'Job More Difficult'

Richard Jacobs, special counsel to Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, conceded that the ruling "makes the Coastal Commission's job more difficult and will make the job of local governments more difficult" to justify conditions placed on development.

The Coastal Commission, created by initiative in 1972, has development jurisdiction over California's 1,000-mile coastline. The commission's efforts to increase public access to the coast and restrict commercial development has led to frequent clashes with beach-front property owners and real estate interests. Gov. George Deukmejian has cut the commission's budget and called for its abolition.

Nollan, the Los Angeles deputy city attorney who was plaintiff in the case decided Friday, said in a telephone interview that the decision would force the Coastal Commission to use restraint in future dealings with property owners.

'Cavalier' Attitude

"The Coastal Commission historically has had a very cavalier and antagonistic attitude toward property owners," he said.

Nollan, 41, said he and his wife have been letting the public use their beach, but objected to being ordered to do so.

"As long as the people behave well and are not obnoxious, we would give them permission to walk back and forth," he said. "But that's our choice."

Deputy Atty. Gen. Anthony Summers acknowledged that the commission most likely would reconsider a number of beach access rulings similar to that made in the case of Nollan. Many such cases have been settled for years, Summers said, but he predicted that the commission would soon bring up the matter and try to find an "equitable approach."

'Could Be Hundreds'

As to how many such cases exist, Summers said he does not know. "There could be hundreds out there," he added. Like many public and private attorneys reached Friday, Summers said he needs more time to study the 47-page opinion before drawing further conclusions.

It is also not clear what impact, if any, the Nollan case will have on other pending public access cases. At the wealthy Malibu Colony, for example, residents have been fighting the coastal panel's requirement that the public be allowed to use the private beach there in return for a seawall to protect their homes from winter storms.

Sherman Stacey, an attorney for the residents, said: "We certainly believe the factual circumstances are as similar to the Nollan case as you can be. These single-family residences were here and the seawall to protect them in no way creates a demand for beach."

However, Chief Assistant Atty. Gen. Andrea Ordin, who argued the state's case before the Supreme Court, said she believes the seawall case will pass constitutional muster.

"A seawall causes physical problems to the beach that the public has a right to use," she said. "There is a clear relationship between the problems of the seawall and a requirement that the public be granted additional access."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World