When a development project straddles the coastal zone boundary, the Coastal Commission may not use its jurisdiction over the portion of the project within the coastal zone to influence development outside of the zone, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

In a case from Los Angeles's West Side, the court rejected the Sierra Club's argument that the Commission should have exerted authority over portions of a project located outside the coastal zone, but which could impact the coastal zone.

The ruling was the second loss at the state's high court for opponents of Catellus Residential Group's West Bluff project, on a hill overlooking the Ballona Wetlands. Last December, the state Supreme Court ruled that affordable housing mandates for projects within the coastal zone did not apply because none of West Bluff's proposed houses or other private facilities were located within the coastal zone (Coalition of Concerned Communities, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, (2004) 34 Cal.4th 733; see CP&DR Legal Digest, January 2005).

The project, for which construction began in 2003, is on 45 acres, 12 of which lie within the coastal zone. As approved by the City of Los Angeles, all 114 houses would be on the 33 acres outside the coastal zone. Still, the project needed a coastal development permit because Catellus proposed building a road from the Pacific Coast Highway through the coastal zone to provide access to 85 of the new houses. In addition to the street, the developer planned to build some storm drainage facilities and other infrastructure in the coastal zone. The Coastal Commission approved a permit for the coastal zone development in 2000.

Environmentalists sued the Coastal Commission, arguing that the state panel should have denied the permit because the coastal zone construction would enable out-of-zone development that could impact resources within the coastal zone. Environmentalists lost at the Superior Court level and in the First District Court of Appeal. The California Supreme Court then took up the case, and, in a mid-May decision, ruled unanimously against environmentalists.

At the high court, the Sierra Club presented a number of arguments, but the most important one was that the Coastal Act required the Commission to consider the impacts in the coastal zone of the houses. The Sierra Club contended that the housing development would be visually incompatible with the scenic area and could harm Ballona Wetlands, an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA).

The Commission countered that it did consider those impacts - to the extent they were related to development within the coastal zone. But, the Commission said, the Sierra Club wanted the Commission to use its jurisdiction over the proposed road to gain jurisdiction over the entire project, which would violate the Coastal Act.

The state's high court accepted the Commission's argument. The court pointed out that the Commission conditioned its permit on bluff-face stabilization work, drainage improvements, bluff-face re-vegetation and the retirement of development rights on 15 parcels between the wetlands and the proposed houses.

"[T]he record makes clear that the Commission did in fact consider the ways in which the proposed development outside the coastal zone would produce impacts within the coastal zone, and the ways in which the proposed development inside the coastal zone, as further conditioned by the Commission to implement the Coastal Act's standards, would address those impacts," Justice Ming Chin wrote for the court. "The Commission's actions in this regard were proper under the Coastal Act."

What the Commission correctly refused to do, Chin continued, was condition a permit for coastal zone based on changes to the portion of the project located outside the coastal zone. The Commission rebuffed environmentalists' request to tie the coastal development permit to fewer houses, more open space and a greater setback between houses and the edge of the bluff.

In siding with the Commission, the court pointed to a 1978 amendment to the Coastal Act. The Legislature approved the amendment to Public Resources Code § 30604, subdivision (d) after the state attorney general issued an opinion that said the Coastal Commission may "deny permits on the basis that the portion of development outside the coastal zone would have adverse environmental impacts inside the coastal zone." The Legislature specifically refuted that opinion.

"[R]egarding developments straddling the coastal zone boundary, the Legislature intended to divide permit authority between the Commission and all other local public entities having jurisdiction over portions of the development outside the coastal zone," Chin wrote.

The Sierra Club further argued that a portion of the Coastal Act - Public Resources Code § 30200, subdivision (a), which says that all public agencies considering activities outside the coastal zone must consider direct impacts on coastal zone resources - applied here. The Sierra Club said that the Coastal Commission was approving activities in the coastal zone that would support development outside the zone that could harm coastal resources in violation of § 30200 subdivision (a). However, the court found that this provision does not apply to the Coastal Commission. Even if it did, the Commission could not use it to overrule other public agencies, the court ruled.

The Sierra Club also argued that the Commission's action was inconsistent with the California Environmental Quality Act and that it conflicted with the Commission's duties under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. The high court rejected both arguments.


The Case:
Sierra Club v. Coastal Commission, No. S116081, 2005 DJDAR 5757. Filed May 19, 2005.

The Lawyers:
For Sierra Club: Frank Angel, (310) 314-6533.
For the Coastal Commission: Hayley Peterson, deputy attorney general, (619) 654-2540.
For Catellus: Robert Crockett, Latham & Watkins, (213) 485-1234.