In a short opinion, the Second Appellate District affirmed the Coastal Commission’s decision concerning a development permit issued by the County of San Luis Obispo in the case Bowman v. California Coastal Commission, Case No. B243015 (March 18, 2014). The Coastal Commission refused to lift a public access agreement contained in a coastal development permit when applicants applied for a second coastal development permit for the same property.
The subject property is approximately 400 acres in San Luis Obispo County and was owned by Walton Emmick. At the time of purchase, the property contained a single family residence and barn—both of which were in disrepair and unusable. The property includes about one mile of shoreline along noncontiguous parcels.
Emmick applied to the County for a coastal development permit (CDP) in 2002 for improvements to the house, installation of a septic system, and connection to an existing well. Emmick began to work on the residence pursuant to the construction permits, but the County told him to stop until the CDP was issued.
Emmick passed away in 2003, and the SDS Family Trust succeeded to the property. Subsequently, in 2004, the County approved the coastal development permit (CDP-1) for which Emmick had originally applied. The CPD was conditioned upon an offer to dedicate a lateral easement for public access along the shorefront portion of the property. The notice of approval informed the SDS Family Trust that it had 14 days to appeal.
No appeal was filed, but nine months later, the SDS Family Trust applied to the county for another coastal development permit (CDP-2). The permit application was for construction of a new barn to replace the existing one, which had collapsed. The application also included the same scope of work requested and approved under CPD-1 along with a request for the removal of the easement condition imposed by CPD-1. The county approved the CDP-2 application despite finding that the SDS Family Trust was in violation of the CDP-1 lateral easement condition because work had begun on the residence but no offer to dedicate had been recorded.
The Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, and two coastal commissioners appealed the county’s approval of the CDP-2 application to the Coastal Commission. The appealing parties argued the county improperly eliminated a valid, existing easement which had been imposed by CDP-1. The Coastal Commission agreed with the appealing parties. The SDS Family Trust responded by filing a petition for writ of mandate, but the trial court ruled for the Commission. The trust appealed.
On appeal, the SDS Family Trust attempted to argue the access easement condition violated the Nollan and Dolan regulatory takings test. The appellate court did not reach this argument though. Instead, the appellate court pointed out that the county made a quasi-judicial determination when it granted CDP-1 and no one appealed that determination, so it became final. Therefore, the SDS Family Trust could not collaterally attack the county’s determination in a second permit proceeding after failing to exercise its administrative remedies during the first proceeding.
The SDS Family Trust then attempted to argue that they were a dissatisfied permit applicant who could simply “walk away” from the permit and apply for a new one. But the appellate court invoked the doctrine of collateral estoppel to reject this and similar arguments. The appellate court noted the purpose of collateral estoppel is to protect the finality of judgments and administrative decisions; so again, a party dissatisfied with an administrative decision must challenge that decision directly on appeal. The SDS Family Trust could walk away from the permit, but it could not walk away from County’s final determination that the lateral easement condition was a valid condition for granting the proposed permit.
This case serves as an important reminder for CEQA practitioners. While the CEQA statute is clear about the requirement that parties exhaust administrative remedies before seeking a court’s relief, this requirement applies wherever an administrative tribunal renders a quasi-judicial opinion.
Update: Court of Appeal reverses decision on rehearing.