State’s high court takes up sea wall fight

By Teri Figueroa5 p.m.Dec. 10, 2014 ⎙ Print

The seawall at the bottom of this Encinitas bluff is at the heart of a legal battle between the California Coastal Commission and the families who own the homes at the top of the bluff. The wall replaced one destroyed in a bluff collapse in late 2010. The families sued after the state agency gave a permit only allowing the new wall for 20 years. “” Peggy Peattie

ENCINITAS “” The state’s highest court agreed Wednesday to hear a legal battle over an Encinitas sea wall in a case that could affect the future of the controversial structures along California’s coast.

The lawsuit was brought by Encinitas families against the California Coastal Commission, challenging the agency’s power to institute a 20-year time limit on sea wall permits.

It highlights an ongoing fight between property owners, who argue sea walls are necessary to fend off erosion and protect homes, and others “” including the Coastal Commission “” who say the structures prevent the wear and tear on bluffs that is critical to sustaining healthy beaches.

The California Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case is “good news for everyone who values property rights,” said their attorney, Paul J. Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation.

“I’m thrilled,” Beard said when reached by phone in Sacramento. He had asked the high court to review the case after his clients suffered a loss in appellate court in September.

The attorney for the Coastal Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

The Encinitas fight involves a 100-foot sea wall and staircase that were destroyed when heavy rains led to a bluff collapse in late 2010. The city gave two Neptune Avenue homeowners “” the Frick and Lynch families “” permission to rebuild both structures.

The Coastal Commission nixed their bid to rebuild the staircase, but gave the OK to rebuild the sea wall “” on the condition that the permit was only good for 20 years. When it expired, the homeowners would have to reapply to keep the wall in place; if no extension was granted, the wall would have to come down.

With the permit in hand, the homeowners went ahead and rebuilt the wall to protect their homes from the unstable bluff, Beard said. But they sued the state commission over the expiration date.

Both sides of the battle have marked a win and a loss in the courts thus far.

In April 2013, a San Diego Superior Court trial judge sided with the families and called the time limit “a power grab.”

The commission had argued in court that by rebuilding the sea wall, the families had essentially agreed to the 20-year limit.

In September, a split appeals court in San Diego reversed the lower court’s ruling, affirming the Coastal Commission’s ability to set time limits. In dissent, Judge Gilbert Nares argued that because the homeowners had repeatedly objected to the conditions during the permitting process, they did not lose their right to continue challenging those conditions when they rebuilt the wall.

The 2-1 appellate ruling became a precedent to defend the Coastal Commission’s authority to set time limits on sea wall permits.

Attorney Beard said the case is not just about the immediate issues for his clients, but about the commission’s use of expiration dates. And, he said, the battle includes the question of whether property owners can fight conditions on permits issued by any agency, while still getting the benefit of the permit “” as his clients did when they rebuilt the wall.

“We think that people should be able to litigate a case while accepting the benefits of the permit,” Beard said. “Your right to use and protect your private property is not a benefit “” it’s a right.”

Written briefings to the court will be due early next year. No date has been set for oral arguments before the high court.