Homeowner Sues California Coastal Commission Over Right to Maintain Seawall

By Eric Heinz

On Friday, April 15, Eric Wills, the owner of a mobile home in the Capistrano Shores subdivision, filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission in Orange County Superior Court for denying him the right to maintain the seawall that protects his property.

According to documents provided by Pacific Legal Foundation, representing Wills in the suit, the CCC approved a coastal development permit for the home but because Wills was putting in a new structure they stated he would have to forfeit his right to apply for permitting to further alter any seawall protecting his home, under the provisions of the California Coastal Act. The reason for this is to prevent erosion and anything that could hamper sand replenishment.

In 2014, Wills removed a rundown mobile home and put a new one its place for him and his family of five.

“We believe it’s unconstitutional and a violation of the Coastal Act,” Wills said. “(The commission) doesn’t have the right to blackmail us to give up the right to protect our property. Basically, it’s the same as telling the people in Talega there’s a fire and you can’t put it out with water.”

Although the seawall is in good condition, Wills said he doesn’t want his right to apply for future repairs to be taken away.

“The government can’t leverage its permitting power to take a right from property owners that they possess under both the state law and the Coastal Act in exchange to get a permit they’re otherwise entitled to,” Salzman said. “What the CCC can do is condition permits in order to offset or mitigate harms to the public or harms to the coast that would arise from the development project.”

One of the arguments Wills may have to fight is that the CCC opposes any development that disturbs or is in front of the natural bluff, but Larry Salzman, a PLF attorney, contends the natural bluff behind the developments already has Pacific Coast Highway, the Orange County Line railway, Capistrano Shores and the revetment wall in front of it.

“If in fact the CCC is going to have this provision in place, they’re going to wipe out the mobile home park,” Wills said. “The demand for this waiver is way in excess of what I’m doing.”

Salzman said replacing the mobile home does not cause any harm or detriment to the coast. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court Case Nolan v. California Coastal Commission (1987) as one case that proved this assertion.

“The Wills and many other families at Capistrano Shores have made huge investments in these properties, and they have a right to protect those properties,” Salzman said.

Wills said without being able to repair the seawall, his home could be destroyed.

From early 2015 to 2016, Wills and many people with San Clemente coastal properties fought against the provision in the city’s Coastal Land Use Plan that prohibited repairing a seawall if a property is removed and replaced. The city eventually changed the CLUP provision to allow for repairs to seawalls.

Salzmann said the precedent that could be set by this case, if they win, could prohibit future waiver obligation to protecting coastal property in the future.

“The CCC is exceeding its jurisdiction and violating the law by demanding these shoreline protection waivers from property owners,” Salzman said. “A win here will make it much more difficult for the commission to do that up and down this coast. So, it potentially affects thousands of property owners along the coast.

A hearing on the matter between Wills and the CCC has been scheduled for June 30.