Beware of Coastal Act Violations: Court Upholds Coastal Commission’s Authority to Impose up to $20 Million Penalty
Property Owner’s Beach Access Case
The California Legislature gave sharper teeth to the Coastal Act in 2014 by authorizing the Coastal Commission to impose a staggering penalty against any person in violation of the Coastal Act’s public access provisions. Under Public Resources Code section 30821, the Coastal Commission could impose a penalty of up to $11,250 for each day the violation persists for up to five years.
As potential penalties could exceed $20 million, questions have swirled around section 30821’s constitutionality. In Lent v. California Coastal Commission, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of section 30821 and the Coastal Commission’s imposition of a nearly $4.2 million fine. While the decision was handed down earlier this month, the court certified it for publication on Friday – meaning it sets a precedent.
Lent powerfully illustrates the draconian consequences that may result from violating the Coastal Act. Property owners engaged in Coastal Zone development should take precautions to ensure compliance with the Coastal Act.
The case stemmed from a dispute between the Coastal Commission and the owner of beachfront property in Malibu. A 5-foot-wide easement encumbers the property for public access to the coast, but an owner of the property built certain accessory structures within the easement area. For years, the Coastal Commission asked the owner to remove the structure, but the owner refused. Finally, in 2014, the Coastal Commission served the owner with a notice of intent to issue a cease and desist order and advised that the Commission could impose penalties under the then-recently enacted section 30821. Still, the owner refused to remove the structures. At the hearing for the cease and desist order, the Coastal Commission imposed the nearly $4.2 million fine against the owner.
The owner filed a petition for writ of mandate asking the trial court to set aside the penalty as unconstitutional. The trial court did not find the penalty unconstitutional on its face, but it held that the Coastal Commission violated the owner’s due process rights by not giving adequate notice of the amount of the penalty that the Commission intended to impose.
The appellate court affirmed the constitutionality of section 30821, and further held that the Coastal Commission did not violate the owner’s due process rights when imposing the fine. In rejecting the owner’s due process claims, the appellate court emphasized that the Coastal Commission had given the owner notice of the maximum fine permissible under section 30821, and it held that this was sufficient to satisfy the owner’s due process rights.
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