Court of Appeal Holds Coastal Commission is Coastal Permitting Agency for Santa Monica Mountains

In Hagopian v. State of California, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District held the California Coastal Commission did not err in finding land owners’ development to be in violation of the Coastal Act. The court found that the Commission was the authorized permitting agency for Los Angeles County, and that the county did not breach any statutory duty. The court affirmed the ruling below.

In 2007, the Hagopians, who reside in the Santa Monica Mountains, applied to the Coastal Commission for a permit exemption to construct a guest house on one of their three adjoining parcels of land. The exemption request was denied, but the Hagopians proceeded to construct a pool, tennis courts, and other structures on the property. They also installed vineyards. Despite being issued notices of violations and assuring the agency they would apply for a development permit, the Hagopians continued to build without a permit. The couple argued they did not need a permit because their property was exempt from the Coastal Act, the Commission had no jurisdiction, the property contained no environmentally sensitive habitat, and prior agricultural use of the property permitted current viticulture use. The Hagopians were granted at least six deadline extensions to seek a coastal development permit. The Commission held a hearing at which it determined the Hagopians were in violation of the Coastal Act. The Hagopians sued.

The trial court found that the Commission was the duly authorized body to issue coastal development permits, and the County of Los Angeles was not obligated to take over that authority before its own local coastal program was certified. The Hagopians appealed, contending that the Coastal Commission proceeded without jurisdiction, denied them a fair hearing, and abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by the evidence. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

The court first laid out that the Coastal Commission has initial authority to issue coastal development permits. Once the Commission approves both the land use and implementation portions of a local coastal program, the program is certified, and the Commission must delegate its authority to the local government within 120 days. Here, the Commission never certified the implementation portion of Los Angeles County’s local coastal program for the Santa Monica Mountains area. Consequently, the Commission’s obligation to delegate permitting authority never arose, and the authority to regulate coastal development remained with the Commission.

The court also found that the Hagopians were not denied their due process rights and that the Hagopians had waived their contentions about an agricultural use exemption by failing to raise it at the hearing. The Commission, the court noted, “has primary authority and expertise to pass on such matters.” Finally, the court rejected the Hagopian’s contention that Los Angeles County must be compelled to complete the local implementation plan process, which had languished after the 120 day deadline passed in 1986.