Ruling Finds CCC Exceeded Authority with Camping Plan Approval
• Appellate Court Unanimously Decides that Coastal Agency 'Override' Exceeded Jurisdiction
BY BILL KOENEKER
A state Court of Appeal sided with the City of Malibu last week in a lawsuit filed by the municipality against the California Coastal Commission's approval of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's park plan which included a controversial provision for overnight camping in several coastal canyons.
In a unanimous decision, the appellate court said, "We decide the California Coastal Commission acted in excess of its jurisdiction when it approved amendments to the city's certified local coastal program at the request of state agencies, over the objections of the city, where the amendments were not requested to undertake a public works project or energy facility development, but instead changed the city's land use policies and development standards as they would apply to future plans for development within the city," the justices wrote.
City Attorney Christi Hogin praised the decision for limiting the CCC's authority and enforcing one such limit. "The Conservancy and the Commission basically teamed up to rewrite Malibu's LCP as it would apply to the Conservancy's several properties scattered throughout Malibu and tried to do it by invoking an obscure provision of the Coastal Act meant for energy facilities and regional public works projects.
"The bottom line is that the court agreed with our core argument that the commission exceeded its jurisdiction when it invoked the narrow 'override' provision to purport to adopt comprehensive changes to the uses and development standards applicable to the Conservancy's holdings in Malibu (a virtual mini-LCP) just for Conservancy land."
Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal concurred. "This decision is a very big deal because it puts a limit on the commission's ability to interfere with local planning decisions."
The litigation has its beginnings in 2007 when the SMMC asked the city to amend its LCP to add land use policies and development standards, in part, to permit the Conservancy to develop four park properties in Malibu and allow overnight camping.
In December 2007, the Malibu City Council approved an amendment to the city's Local Coastal Plan.
Referred to as Malibu's LCP, the document included many changes proposed by SMMC, including a plan to provide the framework for a proposed trail network to link various publicly owned properties throughout Malibu, but did not include the overnight camping proposed in the SMMC's plan in various coastal canyons.
SMMC officials rejected Malibu's plan and submitted to the Coastal Commission its own proposed LCP amendments, asserting an override provision.
The Conservancy asked the commission to declare, in effect, that the override procedures contained in the Coastal Commission's regulations authorized the SMMC to allow the Coastal Commission to certify the SMMC's proposed amendments to Malibu's LCP over the objections of the city.
The appellate court said the Conservancy "never claimed its proposed LCP amendment constitutes a public works project, and clearly, they do not."
The appellate court also indicated, "It is undisputed that the [SMMC] overlay district substitutes the land use policies and development standards of the Conservancy for the policies and standards certified for Malibu in 2002; and it does not seek a permit to develop a public works project."
The justices also opined that, "The Conservancy's overlay district eliminated city participation in the design or development of parkland and trail improvements.
"In short, the Conservancy proposed to override Malibu's land use plans and policies and substitute new ones over the objections of the city, not for the purpose of developing a public works project, but so that in the future development and programs could be approved by the CCC, thus enabling the Conservancy to avoid having to ask the city for coastal development permits."
In an aside that might make Malibu residents' brows furrow, the court said, "Moreover, the Conservancy's new land use policies did not change the rules only for its own park properties, the overlay district prohibits any fire outside any park facility, including backyard fires and barbeques, on any public or private property, within 20 feet of any flammable vegetation."
After public hearings before the Coastal Commission, when it heard both the SMMC's plan and the city's, the coastal panel found in favor of the SMMC and rejected the city's LCP amendment.
The city filed a lawsuit and in July 2011, the trial court found for the city opining the Conservancy's plan was just that—a "plan" rather than a specific public works project—and did not qualify for the override procedure. The SMMC sought to have the decision overturned at the appellate level.
However, the appellate court, in a published opinion, turned back the Conservancy at every turn.
"This argument violates basic principles of statutory interpretation cited below, and contrary to the Conservancy's claim, courts do not defer to the Coastal Commission's interpretation of the scope of its authority under the statute. The Conservancy has no relevant authority or rational explanation for its position and we find nothing in the Coastal Act indicating a legislative intent to distinguish a public works project from an energy facility development for purposes of permitting the Coastal Commission to override a local government's land use policies and development standards."
The city attorney said the decision offers the city a great opportunity. "In the wake of the court's ruling, the city will be able to assume its role in the development of policies and work with the Conservancy to achieve our shared goals of public access, a world-class trail system and wonderful parks."