The Coastal Act does not protect views of the coast from off-shore locations, the Second District Court of Appeal has ruled. In a case from San Luis Obispo County, the court ruled that the Coastal Commission did not have authority to require that a proposed house be relocated and downsized to protect the views of boaters and surfers.

The ruling is a setback for the Coastal Commission, which has increasingly sought to preserve views from offshore, especially in remote areas.

At issue is a house proposed by landowner Dennis Schneider for a 40-arce parcel along the Harmony Coast, between Cambria and Morro Bay. Six years ago, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission approved a coastal development permit (CDP) for a 10,000-square-foot house, a barn and a 1.25-mile-long driveway from Highway 1. Two members of the Coastal Commission appealed the decision, and four years later the state panel approved the CDP but added new conditions.

The Coastal Commission found that the project would be visible from the ocean. So the Commission insisted that the project be relocated to a higher elevation away from a marine terrace, that all development be confined to 5,000 square feet, that the barn be dropped from the project, and that the driveway be moved.

Schneider sued, arguing that the Commission has no authority to impose development conditions to protect views of the coast from offshore. San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet ruled for the Commission, but the Second District, Division Six, overturned that decision.

The Coastal Commission argued that a portion of the Coastal Act, specifically, Public Resources Code § 30251, mandates protection of scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas. The Commission noted that the statute does not mention a vantage point. During the hearing regarding Schneider’s project and at other times, Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas contended that the agency has a responsibility to protect views from the sea to the coast.

But the Second District determined, “This expansive reading of the statute stretches the fabric too thin.” Historically, the protection of scenic coastal views from public parks, roads, trails and vista points has been regulators’ aim, the court determined.

“”[W]e believe that it is unreasonable to assume that the Legislature has ever sought to protect the occasional boater’s views of the coastline at the expense of a coastal landowner,” Justice Kenneth Yegan wrote for the court.

The Coastal Commission reviewed the CDP based on policies in San Luis Obispo County’s Local Coastal Program (LCP), which protect views from Highway 1 and other inland areas, the court noted.

“Neither § 30251 nor the LCP support an unwritten policy to protect scenic views of the coast from offshore, ocean-based vantage points. The LCP protects ‘major public view corridors,’ not offshore views by the occasional boater, kayaker or surfer. Such an ocean-based view corridor would change minute by minute depending on where the boater, kayaker or fisher happens to be,” Yegan wrote.

However, the court did not go so far as to reinstate the original permit approved by the county, and, instead, ordered the Commission to reconsider the CDP. The court noted that the proposed project would be visible from a park and other land-based view corridors, and the Coastal Commission had added conditions to address that impact.

The Case:
Schneider v. California Coastal Commission, No. B186149, 06 C.D.O.S. 5997, 2006 DJDAR 8429. Filed June 28, 2006.
The Lawyers:
For Schneider: James Burling and Lawrence Salzman, Pacific Legal Foundation, (916) 419-7111.
For the Commission: Rosana Miramontes, attorney general’s office, (213) 897-2000.