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California Supreme Court Rules On Encinitas Seawall Case

Encinitas homeowner Tom Frick on his patio, May 1, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Encinitas homeowner Tom Frick on his patio, May 1, 2017.
California Supreme Court Rules On Encinitas Seawall Case
California Supreme Court Rules On Encinitas Seawall Case GUEST:Jennifer Savage, California Policy Manager, The Surfrider Foundation

A state Supreme Court ruling on a seawall does not end the controversy. A classic get reincarnated at the theater . This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh it is Friday, June 7. Our top story a ruling by the state Supreme Court and the case about seawall but it does it and the controversy. They ruled against two owners who claimed that the commission overstepped their bounds by putting a 20 year expiration date on their seawall permit. They claim they should have the right to build a more permanent structure. They decide the issue on a narrow legal basis so the issue was not addressed. Joining me is Jennifer Savage, California policy manager. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for having me. The state Supreme Court ruled that since the homeowners rebuilt a seawall after receiving their permit, they could not contest the time limit imposed by the coastal commission. I believe both sides were hoping for a broader ruling. What do they hope it would clarify? We would have liked to see the ruling indoors the California coastal commission's authority to put these conditions on seawalls and have the authority to govern how they are put in and have that be made more clear for the long-term. The homeowners contend this was a overreach by the commission which conflicts with their property rights. Their attorney says the issue remains unresolved. It means they will be putting their lives on hold for several years before they know whether the commission imposed on them. Some content this permit time limit could decrease their property values. What is your response question I haven't seen any studies about property values and how seawalls affect them. They should anticipate the changing shoreline. We know that sea level rise is a risk. So they need to expect those challenges that come along with that. What is the problem for granting the almost permanent permit to construct a seawall? It's a ongoing problem. We all want to be as close to the beach as possible but granting it is at seawalls kill beaches and if we keep the seawalls along the coast, then the beaches will disappear faster than they are expected to already. How does the commission monitor the effects of erosion as sea level rises? That is a great question. I wish I had a simple answer. They can go to the website and there is a recent vulnerability synthesis and a whole report on the strategies available. It's fascinating and so it's a good place to start to see what kind of threats are out there and what kind of actions people can take to adapt to them. Why does the coastal commission impose a 20 year deadline on this permit? I can't speak for the coastal commission but our understanding is they feel like that would be enough time to be able to monitor and see the changes while also giving the homeowners enough time to have adequate protection going forward. Again, the long-term solutions are not going to come in the form of Armory. The assessment report -- the widest part is projected to disappear between 20/30 and 2060. Is there any kind of plan to get beachfront property owners involved in this effort so it's not a fight? Sure. There's a lot of different organizations convened by the city of Delmar is a great example. There's homeowners, advocates, all kinds of different coastal engineering experts, agency representatives. There are these planning groups coming together to figure out how to best address is. There is a lot of that going on. If I were a beachfront homeowner, I would want to be part of that because it's better to be proactive and we have the opportunity. What do you see this issue meaning to the larger San Diego community question that people who don't live on top of the beach. Well, what we are looking at is this sealevel rise. We will see Roshan worse. People in San Diego love their beaches. It's one of the the cheapest places. It's going to continue to hear this issue. It's not being able to just go build sand castles or go swimming at the beach but the coastal economy is $44 billion. If we lose the beach, we lose the economy as well. That will impact the state as a whole. There's the economic issues and the actual physical inability to access a beach if it is gone. I've been speaking with Jennifer Savage. Thank you.

Property owners who object to government-mandated restrictions on construction permits must litigate the issues before building their projects, or risk forfeiting their rights to take legal action, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case involving plaintiffs in Encinitas.

In a unanimous opinion, the justices ruled that plaintiffs Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick, who own adjacent blufftop properties in the northern San Diego County municipality, gave up their right to challenge the California Coastal Commission's conditions on a seawall project because they went ahead and had the structure built.

Lynch and Frick were already planning improvements to their seawall when a series of storms in 2010 caused their bluffs to collapse, destroying the ocean barrier.


They then sought a coastal development permit to rebuild the seawall, but the commission approved it under the conditions that they could not rebuild stairs to the beach, that the permit would expire in 20 years and that future blufftop redevelopment could not rely on the seawall as a source of geologic stability or protection.

RELATED: California Supreme Court Tackles Seawalls, Sea Level Rise

The commission also ordered that any changes to, or removal of, the seawall before the end of the two decades would require a new permit.

According to the justices, Lynch and Frick complied with various aspects of the permit and had the seawall built while they pursued challenges to the commission's restrictions. A Superior Court judge ruled in the property owners' favor, but was overturned at the appellate level.

Lynch and Frick subsequently appealed to the state's highest court.


"This decision makes it harder for property owners to fight when the Coastal Commission imposes unlawful conditions on permits to use or build on one's property," said John Groen, who represented the plaintiffs.

Groen, executive vice president and general counsel of the Pacific Legal Foundation, said the ruling is particularly bad for small property owners.

His clients had an urgent need to rebuild the seawall to protect their property, and clearly stated their objections through every step in the process, he said.

"The court has shrunk their right to move forward with projects under protest while litigation proceeds," he said. "Instead, they will be forced to put their lives and projects on hold for years while a court battle over an unlawful condition goes on."

The lawyer said property owners will be forced to accept unlawful, even unconstitutional restrictions on their property because they cannot afford to pursue their objections. The foundation litigates on property rights issues.

The right of coastal property owners to build protective barriers is a major issue in the face of eroding coastlines and rising sea levels, according to the Surfrider Foundation.

"The court today made an important ruling that property owners who accept the benefits of a permit forego their right to challenge a permit's conditions," said Angela Howe, the environmental organization's legal director. "By doing so, the high court ensured that the California Coastal Commission's enforcement of coastal protections remain in place."

Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager for Surfrider's San Diego chapter, said seawalls artificially prevent the movement of the mean high tide line. She said it's important that the impacts of seawalls are periodically reassessed to ensure the public's access to the beach.