The California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in Lynch v. California Coastal Commission that two homeowners who obtained a coastal development permit (CDP) from the California Coastal Commission (Commission) to construct a new seawall forfeited their right to challenge mitigation conditions attached to the permit because they accepted the benefits conferred by the permit by undertaking the work authorized.
Key procedural takeaway: With exceptions noted below, if a permit applicant accepts a proffered CDP and acts on that permit – even while expressly reserving its asserted right to challenge the legality of the permit – the permittee has forfeited its right to subsequently challenge the permit in court.
Key takeaway on the merits of the claim: None. Since the Supreme Court ruled that the permittees had forfeited their right to challenge the CDP by undertaking the authorized construction, it found no need to address the underlying merits of the permittee’s challenge. In particular, the Court left unaddressed the contention that the mitigation conditions were unconstitutional, including the condition that limited the life of the seawall to 20 years unless reauthorized at the end of the term.
Homeowners Challenge CDP Conditions
The homeowners, Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick, sought a CDP (more precisely, an amendment to the 1989 CDP authorizing construction of the existing seawall) to authorize demolition of an existing seawall, construction of a replacement seawall and rebuilding of a lower stairway providing access from the bluff to the beach. The Commission granted the CDP allowing seawall demolition and reconstruction but imposed several permit conditions.
The homeowners filed an administrative writ petition in superior court challenging the following three permit conditions: (1) a prohibition on reconstruction of the lower stairway; (2) a 20-year expiration period on the seawall permit and a prohibition on relying on the seawall as a source of geologic stability or protection for future blufftop redevelopment; and (3) a requirement that prior to expiration of the 20-year period, the homeowners must apply for a new permit to remove the seawall, change its size or configuration, or extend the authorization period.
Around the same time, the homeowners recorded deed restrictions on their property stating that the CDP conditions were covenants, conditions and restrictions on the use and enjoyment of their properties, satisfied all other permits conditions, obtained the permit and demolished and reconstructed the seawall.
Lower Court Rulings
The trial court issued a writ directing the Commission to remove the three challenged conditions from the CDP and found that the conditions prohibiting reconstruction of the stairway and imposing a 20-year expiration period were not valid. The appellate court reversed the trial court, determining that plaintiffs had waived their claims and, in any event, both conditions were valid.
California Supreme Court Ruling
Though the Court affirmed the appellate court’s reversal of the trial court decision, it did so on a different basis. The appellate court’s ruling rested on the concept of waiver while the Court found that the homeowners forfeited their right to challenge by accepting the benefits of the permit. The Court explained that forfeiture differs from waiver in that forfeiture results from a failure to invoke a right and waiver denotes an express relinquishment of a known right. The Court identified the crucial point as being that the homeowners “went forward with construction before obtaining a judicial determination of their objections.” By accepting the benefits of the CDP and undertaking the permitted project, the homeowners effectively forfeited the right to maintain their otherwise timely objections.
The Court rejected the homeowners’ argument that because the challenged permit conditions did not affect the design or construction of the seawall, it was possible to challenge the conditions while the project was being built. Such a rule, the Court said, would effectively expand the Mitigation Fee Act (Gov. Code, §§ 66000 et seq.), which establishes a procedure for developers to proceed with a project and still protest the imposition of “fees, dedications, reservations, or other exactions.” Not included in this list, however, are land use restrictions. The Court stated that only the Legislature has the power to declare that permits may be accepted and acted upon, even while the underlying land use restrictions imposed as a condition of that permit are being challenged in court.
The Court did note that there are potential remedies available to permit applicants. Responding to the homeowners’ protest that imposing a forfeiture under the circumstances present here – where the seawall was in danger of collapsing into the sea thus allowing no time to delay repairs until resolution of the litigation – the Court offered two solutions. First, property owners can address imminent dangers by obtaining an emergency permit from the Commission under Public Resources Code section 30624. Second, property owners can try to reach an agreement with the permitting agency to allow construction to proceed while a challenge to permit conditions is resolved in court, which the court noted could prevent a finding of equitable forfeiture. Neither remedy appears to have been pursued in this case.
Developers and property owners should view the unanimous Court’s holding as applying beyond CDPs and should thus proceed with extreme caution when faced with objectionable permit conditions. By refusing to extend the Mitigation Fee Act’s “pay and protest” option beyond fees and exactions, this decision gives permitting agencies leverage to impose potentially controversial permit conditions, knowing that permit applicants are often constrained in terms of time and money when choosing between moving forward with objectionable permit conditions or going to court. Legislative action on this issue could provide some relief, but may not be likely for the foreseeable future.