Justices Bolster Beach Access
The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for California coastal officials to open more than 1,200 pathways to the beach, as the justices rejected claims that the public walkways violate private property rights.
The court’s action represents a victory for officials in Santa Barbara County and other coastal communities who have moved recently to take advantage of past offers by property owners to allow public pathways across their land.
“This is very significant. It clearly confirms our position that if you agreed to a public access condition when it was legal to do so, you can’t get out of it now,” said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission in San Francisco.
On California beaches, where all land below the high tide line is public, the fight has been over the “dry sand,” which can be owned as private property. The Coastal Commission for years has been pushing to open public walkways across the sand that were promised long ago by property owners.
Monday’s Supreme Court action is expected to clear the legal barriers to opening those public access ways. Most of them run along the shore; others are walkways from public roads to the beach.
The legal battles over these walkways have centered on exclusive beach communities in Malibu, Laguna Beach, Mendocino and Santa Barbara.
Until Monday, it had been unclear whether the high court would allow officials to enforce agreements made before 1987 in which property owners were forced to make “offers” of public access in exchange for building permits.
Before 1987, the California Coastal Commission routinely demanded such offers when landowners sought to build near the coast. If the owners wanted to build -- even just to add a deck or a sunroom on a house -- they had no choice but to offer a strip of their land for public access.
But the Supreme Court in 1987 took up a property-rights complaint from a Ventura homeowner named James Nollan and condemned the state’s demands as “an out-and-out plan of extortion.”
The Nollan ruling strictly limited the state’s authority to seek new “offers to dedicate” land, but it did not clarify the status of past offers.
Most of these offers had gone unused.
In recent years, the California Coastal Commission pressed local officials to take advantage of them. As of 1995, only one in five of the 1,269 potential access ways to the beach had been secured for public use, the commission said.
Under state law, these pathways must be operated by a county, park district or nonprofit group that will assume the cost of maintaining the land. They must add steps, install signs and take on the potential liability from accidents or injuries.
The Coastal Commission also pointed out that many of the “offers to dedicate” lasted for 20 years and would expire soon if officials did not take action.
Four years ago, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors moved to take advantage of several such offers. However, they were sued by two new landowners who asserted that the county’s demands were unconstitutional. The plaintiffs relied on the Nollan ruling.
One suit was filed by Ann Daniel and Leonard Hill, who in 1997 purchased a single-family home near the beach. The previous owner had agreed to allow a 5-foot-wide pathway across the property, but it has yet to be built.
The second was filed on behalf of Wendy McCaw, a billionaire environmentalist and owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press newspaper, who sought to block the public’s use of a 500-foot strip of beach below her 25-acre bluff-top estate. In 1980, the previous owner of her land had pledged to allow the beach access in exchange for a permit to build a sunroom and a deck on a guest house.
The courts in California rejected the two lawsuits and ruled that the new owners must abide by the promises made by the previous owners.
They then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been far more friendly to property rights claims than California courts.
Their lawyers urged the high court to block “flagrant evasions of the constitutional restrictions” that were set in the Nollan case. California officials should not be rewarded for having used “strong-arm tactics” in the past to obtain private property, they said.
“Unless this Court grants review, the unconstitutional taking of coastal property that occurred in this case will not be an isolated incident. Literally hundreds of other offers ... that the Coastal Commission coerced before the Court’s decision in Nollan are due to expire soon, and the Commission has made clear its intention to secure acceptance of as many as of them as possible,” Washington attorney Carter Phillips told the justices in one of the appeals.
But after studying the cases for several weeks, the justices dismissed both of them Monday in a pair of one-line orders. (Cole vs. Santa Barbara and Daniel vs. Santa Barbara)
The justices did not explain their decision, but they have been wary of upsetting existing agreements in land-use cases.
McCaw, who does not grant interviews, issued a statement saying she is “disappointed about the court’s nondecision. My hope is the U.S. Supreme Court will come around as it did with civil rights and stop the California Coastal Commission from expropriating private property.”
The easement in McCaw’s case runs along the dry sand below an 80-foot bluff in the exclusive Hope Ranch community, just up the coast from Santa Barbara.
“It’s clearly a victory for public access,” said Alan Seltzer, an attorney for Santa Barbara County. “The court’s decision upholds that you leave final actions final. You don’t get a second bite at the apple.”
In a related case that has garnered much attention, movie and record producer David Geffen has engaged state officials and a nonprofit group, Access for All, in a legal dispute over a public walkway along his Malibu estate. He pledged to open the walkway to the beach in 1983, when he expanded his compound.
Now he wants the beach, which is walled off from the public by a phalanx of houses, to remain closed because it lacks the parking, lifeguards and bathroom facilities necessary to accommodate the public.
Government lawyers said Monday’s high court decision undercuts Geffen’s legal position.
“He is raising the same issue as the others. He agreed to the condition to get a permit. He got the permit and now he wants to get out of it,” said Douglas of the Coastal Commission. “The Supreme Court decision is so important because it says you should have challenged this within 60 days, not 19 years later. It should moot out Geffen’s lawsuit.”
Geffen lawyer Steven A. Amerikaner disputed that assessment. “There are many claims in the Geffen lawsuit that were not presented to the Supreme Court and we believe they are well-founded and viable.”
Savage reported from Washington and Weiss from Los Angeles.