Friday, May 20, 2005
S.C. Limits Coastal Commission Authority to Stop Development
In Unanimous Ruling, Justices Say State Body Cannot Review Projects’ Impacts Outside Coastal Zone
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Coastal Commission has no authority to deny a permit for development of a project straddling the coastal zone where the only unmitigated negative impacts of the project would be felt in areas outside the commission’s jurisdiction, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices said the commission had correctly interpreted the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction when it approved a controversial development plan in the Westchester-Playa del Rey area. Lower courts earlier came to the same conclusion.
The justices upheld the issuance of a development permit for a parcel adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands, turning aside a challenge by the Sierra Club and two other groups that have been fighting development of the West Bluffs area for more than a decade.
First Attempt Rejected
Catellus Residential Group, which acquired the property after Maguire Thomas Partners pulled out of the project several years ago, originally proposed a development of 119 single family homes on the 44.69-acre parcel. Environmentalists and nearby residents opposed the project, saying the land was unique and should remain open space, and the Coastal Commission denied a coastal development permit in 1999.
The developer then came back with a revised plan that reduced the number of homes to 114, eliminated coastal zone filling of Hastings Canyon, expanded the amount of revegetation of coastal scrub, and retired development rights in order to limit future development along the bluff face.
As with the original plan, residential development was confined to the bluff top, outside the coastal zone.
After the City of Los Angeles again completed an environmental impact report concluding that there would be no significant environmental impacts, the commission issued a coastal development permit, in 2000.
The Sierra Club, Spirit of the Sage Council, and Ballona Ecosystem Education Project — also known as B.E.E.P. — challenged the permit in the San Francisco Superior Court, arguing that it improperly permitted development in “environmentally sensitive habitat areas,” or ESHAs, including areas extending outside the coastal zone.
(The act defines an ESHA as “any area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments.”)
In response, the commission agreed that under the Coastal Act of 1976, it had the authority to “consider impacts in the coastal zone of the portions of the project outside the coastal zone,” but said it could not “deny a permit for development inside the coastal zone where the impacts of that development have been fully mitigated and the only purpose for denying the permit would be to indirectly regulate development outside the coastal zone.”
Judge James Robertson agreed, and the First District Court of Appeal affirmed two years ago.
Justice Ming Chin, writing for the high court yesterday, said the commission and the lower courts were correct.
When the Legislature passed the Coastal Act, Chin explained, it considered, but rejected, a provision that would have allowed the commission to base its permit decision on impacts within the coastal zone of proposed development outside the coastal zone, even where proposed development inside the coastal zone was otherwise in conformity with the act.
Then, in 1978, the act was amended to declare that “[n]o development or any portion thereof that is outside the coastal zone shall be subject to the coastal development permit requirements of” the statute.
The intent, Chin said, was to preserve the longstanding authority of local governments to regulate development outside the coastal zone.
The justice went on to reject the contention that even if the commission could not consider the non-coastal zone impacts under the Coastal Act, it could do so under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Contrary to Sierra Club’s assertion, nothing in CEQA authorizes or requires the Commission, notwithstanding its finding that proposed development inside the coastal zone is in conformity with the Coastal Act, to deny a permit request for that development based on the impacts within the coastal zone of proposed development outside the coastal zone,” Chin wrote. “On the contrary, several provisions of CEQA preclude us from using that act to expand the Commission’s authority beyond the limits set forth in the Coastal Act.”
Attorneys who argued the case before the high court were Frank P. Angel of Santa Monica for the petitioners, Deputy Attorney General J. Matthew Rodriguez for the Coastal Commission, and Robert D. Crockett of the Los Angeles office of Latham & Watkins for Catellus.
The case is Sierra Club v. California Coastal Commission (Catellus Residential Group) , 2343.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company