The opponent of a proposed Mendocino County inn should have named the Coastal Commission in her lawsuit because the Commission, not the county Board of Supervisors, made the final decision on the project, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.

The project opponent named only the Board of Supervisors, whose decision had been appealed to the Commission. The Commission conducted a de novo hearing (a fresh hearing that ignores previous proceedings) and issued permits for the project; thus, the commission was an "indispensable party" and should have been named in any lawsuit, the court held.

In November 1997, the Mendocino County Planning Commission approved a mitigated negative declaration and permits for a 20-unit guest inn near Mackerricher State Park, a few miles north of Fort Bragg. A number of groups, including the Sierra Club, appealed that decision to the county Board of Supervisors, which upheld the commission's decision in January 1998. Because the project site lies within the Coastal Zone, opponents then appealed to the Coastal Commission. In May of 1998, the Coastal Commission conducted a de novo hearing and approved a permit for the proposed inn.

In March 1999, Sierra Club member Mary Rose Kaczorowski, acting as her own attorney, filed a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors claiming that the board violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not requiring an environmental impact report for the inn. Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Cindee Mayfield ruled that the Coastal Commission was an indispensable party, and that the statute of limitations had already passed for Kaczorowski to add the Commission to her lawsuit.

Kaczorowski then appealed, but a three-judge panel of the First District, Division Four, upheld the trial court.

Under the Coastal Act of 1976 (Public Resources Code § 30000 et seq.), The Coastal Commission can hear an appeal that presents a "substantial issue." If it hears the appeal, the Commission conducts a de novo hearing. "[I]n effect, the commission hears the application as if no local government unit was previously involved, deciding for itself when the proposed project satisfies legal standards and requirements," Justice Laurence Kay wrote for the court.

"Once the Commission conducted its de novo examination, there was no longer a decision by the Board [of Supervisors] to review," Kay continued. "More fundamentally, the Board — although still interested in the matter — was no longer plaintiff's adversarial opponent. The Commission's findings that the proposed inn complied with CEQA superseded equivalent findings by the Board in precisely the same manner that the Board's decision superseded that of the Planning Commission. It was the [Coastal] Commission, not the Board, which issued the permit authorizing real parties to build their inn."

Kaczorowski had 30 days from the Coastal Commission's decision to sue the agency, and that period expired before she filed her lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors, the court held.

The Case: Mary Rose Kaczorowski v. Board of Supervisors for the County of Mendocino, No. A091318, 01 C.D.O.S. 3076. Filed April 17, 2001.

The Lawyers: Kaczorowski in pro. per.

For the Board: Frank Zotter, chief deputy county counsel, (707) 463-4446.