Thursday, September 19, 2019

Lindstrom v. Coastal Commission (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 19, 2019)

Even though Encinitas residents James and Karla Lindstrom (largely) lose this appeal, they can't (legitimately) complain that the Court of Appeal didn't give their arguments careful consideration.  Justice Irion's opinion is 52 pages long.  And it carefully -- and in my view, persuasively -- addresses the competing contentions of the parties.  It's a very good opinion, and the type I like to see.

The question revolves around the validity of various permit conditions that the Coastal Commission imposed on the construction of a very large (and expensive) residence on a vacant lot on the top of an oceanfront bluff at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.  Of particular importance is (1) how far back from this (inherently somewhat) unstable bluff the residence needs to be built; e.g., 40 or 60 feet, and (2) whether it's okay to condition the permit on an agreement that no sea wall or other protective devices ever be employed to stop erosion.

The various tribunals below reached conflicting results.  But Justice Irion's resolution seems pretty darn good to me.  Her statutory analysis makes sense and to me from both a textual as well as policy perspective.  And she's definitely thought about the competing positions carefully and at length.  As I said, it's a good opinion.

It makes sense to me that we legitimately want the longer setback because we want the house (and bluff) to be stable (i.e., with a 1.5 safety rating) even after 75 years.  Not just standing, but stable.

By contrast, it's interesting from a policy perspective that we're now deliberately employing land use to make sure (essentially) that houses indeed collapse into the ocean over time, rather than are saved (e.g., impose "no-barriers-ever" conditions).  I'm not saying that's wrong.  Indeed, I'm sympathetic to the view, at least at some level.  (And that's a declaration against interest, since I own a home on the oceanfront that's off a bluff myself -- though there's a street between me and the bluff, and I suspect that the City will go through some fairly strong measures to save the thing before it lets my home fall into the ocean.)  When you build a house on an (inevitably) eroding bluff, it's okay to say to someone "Hey, we'll let you build the thing if you want, but you know it's going to eventually fall in the ocean, right?  No complaining in the future about that eventuality and asking to build an ugly seawall; if that is your intent, no deal."  Do I feel bad for the eventual homeowner -- likely, not the Lindstroms, who will likely have long before departed this property (and the world) before those 75-plus years expire -- who has to watch their house fall into the ocean?  Sure.  Of course.  But that's the price you pay for buying a property on an eroding bluff.  Hope you got a good deal on the thing.  At least the views of the ocean and sunsets in the interim were awesome.

I totally get the contrary arguments that the Lindstroms make.  But I think that the Court of Appeal's analysis of them was nonetheless correct.  (Including, I suspect, the small portion of the opinion that was in the Lindstroms' favor.)

We're letting people build on bluffs.  But we're also making sure that they eventually fall into the ocean.

Just not for a long while.

P.S. - I can't help but wonder whether the bluff-landslide deaths recently up in Encinitas consciously or subconsciously affected the result here.  This was definitely a high-profile event, at least down in San Diego.  And even though the case isn't about erosion that kills people, it definitely put erosion on the bluffs into distinct focus.  I wonder which party to the appeal (if either) reacted to the news of the deaths by saying "Crap.  That really hurts us here."