Conservative legal group calls on Malibu to fight Coastal Commission

The Pacific Legal Foundation met with the Malibu community last Thursday to showcase its program against government overreach by the California Coastal Commission. Photo courtesy of Pacific Legal Foundation

The legal nonprofit says the Coastal Commission and its executive director, Peter Douglas, have a “socialist agenda.”

By Vicky Shere / Special to the Malibu Times

In an effort to save property owners from what they see as naked land grabbing, the Pacific Legal Foundation met with the Malibu community last Thursday to showcase its program against government overreach by the California Coastal Commission.

Presenting its Coastal Land Rights project as a tactic in its mission to protect individual liberty against government encroachment, the Sacramento-based, public interest legal organization packed a 100-seat room at the Malibu Performing Arts Center last week.

Realtors, attorneys, and land-use consultant Don Schmitz, whose firm represents the Chicago partnership that wants to develop the La Paz office/retail project in the Civic Center area, heard staffers of the conservative, 35-year-old nonprofit explain how it litigates against the commission.

(Robin L. Rivett, president of Pacific Legal Foundation, told The Malibu Times after the meeting that the foundation has a core group of supporters who thought more people in Malibu should know about its work.)

“Through unfair exactions and fees, the California Coastal Commission wants to make it as difficult as possible for property owners to use their land,” Rivett said in opening remarks. “Let us know what’s going on.”

Rivett then introduced staff attorneys Paul J. Beard II and Damien M. Schiff to elaborate.

With a photo of California Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas juxtaposed with one of Karl Marx, as well as a graphic of a giant work boot marked “California Coastal Commission” bearing down on a dreamy image of the coast on a screen behind them, the attorneys excoriated the commission.

“Peter Douglas and his staff, the heart and soul of the commission, have a socialist agenda,” Beard said. “They want to socialize the entire coastal zone without paying a single dime for it. They want to take as much decision-making power from local governments as possible, steal as much land from property owners as possible and kill as much human activity in the coastal zone as possible.”

(In a telephone interview responding to the foundation’s comments, Douglas said the group has a “right wing agenda of neutralizing the ability of government to carry out its responsibilities.”)

Referring to a landmark beach access case, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, that the group won in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, Beard said the commission uses its permitting power to “extort land from property owners, and limit the constitutional right of property owners to use their property in a reasonable way.” (In the Nollan case, the commission conditioned its issuance of a coastal development permit on the Nollans allowing the public an easement across their property to access the beach. The court ruled that the state could not compel coastal residents alone to provide beach access, that the state could exercise its eminent domain power and pay for access easements.)

In addition to abusing its permitting authority, the commission is misusing its statutory power, the attorneys said.

In one example, attorney Schiff described how the commission claims that a fireworks display in the town of Gualala (located north of San Francisco) constitutes “development” within the meaning of the Coastal Act. The foundation represents the Gualala Festivals Committee in its superior court lawsuit challenging commission jurisdiction over firework shows.

The commission issued a cease and desist order last year after a group of homeowners complained that the 4th of July display was disturbing a group of nesting birds on a nearby federal Bureau of Land Management-controlled island.

“This action overreaches state authority,” Schiff said. “A fireworks display has no lasting effect on the land.”

In response, Douglas told The Malibu Times that under the Coastal Act, development includes “causing a change in intensity of use of land, in this case, a coastal trail and coastal access.

“A fireworks display affects nesting birds on offshore rocks,” Douglas said. “We checked with federal, state and local agencies and they said that nests were abandoned last year. The commission clearly has jurisdiction and a basis for concern.”

Schiff and Beard concluded their presentation with a call for people to let them know what issues affect them, such as, for example, erecting a sea wall.

Martin Burke, a foundation client in a case involving the commission’s denial of a permit for repairing a 40-year-old fence demarcating Torrance Beach and his beach bluff property, warned the audience that the commission used aerial photos that did not show the fence as a basis for their decision.

In another post-meeting response supporting the foundation’s efforts, Malibu Association of Realtors President Paul Spiegel e-mailed The Malibu Times: “While we acknowledge the important role of government in regulating the appropriate uses of property, we applaud the PLF for their efforts to protect the public from abusive government actions.

“The PLF [plays] a preeminent role in representing property owners in their fight for a balanced approach to environmental regulation and limited government in courts across the country.”