The California Coastal Commission lost its jurisdiction over development of a proposed elementary school in Encinitas because the Commission did not determine within 49 days whether a "substantial issue" existed, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

The ruling appears to knock down a practice in which the Commission within 49 days of receiving an appeal sets a later hearing date without addressing any of the issues.

In 1998, Encinitas Country Day School (ECDS) sought permission to build a 432-student private elementary school on 20 acres along Manchester Avenue, east of Interstate 5 and near the San Elijo Lagoon. The city prepared a mitigated negative declaration, and in late 1998 the Planning Commission and, on appeal, the City Council approved the project.

On December 10, 1998, project opponents filed an appeal with the Coastal Commission contending that the project did not conform to the Encinitas local coastal plan.On December 17, Coastal Commission staff members issued a report stating that the city had not yet provided all relevant documents and recommending that the Commission open a public hearing at its January meeting (the Commission meets monthly) and then continue the matter to a later date.

On January 13, 1999, the Commission opened the hearing and then promptly continued it to the February meeting without considering any of the issues. On February 4, 1999 — 56 days after the appeal was filed — the Commission decided it had jurisdiction and denied the project because it and the cumulative impact of other projects on Manchester Avenue conflicted with the city's certified local coastal plan.

The school then filed suit, asking the court to overturn the Commission's decision and to provide relief for inverse condemnation. San Diego County Superior Court Judge Linda Quinn set aside the Commission's project denial because the Commission had not decided within 49 days whether a substantial issue existed, and because substantial evidence did not exist that the site was within the Commission's jurisdiction.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Thomas LaVoy heard the inverse condemnation part of the litigation. He called the December 17 staff report "unreasonable and arbitrary." But Judge LaVoy determined that the Commission was not bound by the staff report and that the situation did not meet "the extraordinarily high standard for determining that error by the Commission constitutes a regulatory-delay ‘taking.'"

The Coastal Commission appealed the jurisdictional ruling, while the school appealed the inverse condemnation decision. A unanimous three-judge panel of the Fourth District, Division One, upheld the decisions of both trial court judges.

The Fourth District published only the portion of its opinion addressing the 49-day rule. Public Resources Code § 30621, subdivision (a), requires that a "hearing on a coastal development permit application or an appeal shall be set no later than 49 days after the date on which the application or appeal is filed with the Commission." In the case of an appeal, if the Commission does not act within 49 days, the decision of the local government becomes final. The applicant may waive the 49-day deadline.

The Commission argued that its procedure was allowed under Coronado Yacht Club v. California Coastal Com., (1993) 13 Cal. App.4th 860 (see CP&DR Court Cases, April 1993). In that case, the court allowed the Commission to decide on a proposed dock extension more than 49 days after an appeal was filed.

But the Fourth District said the Encinitas case was different. In Coronado Yacht Club, the Commission did decide within 49 days that a substantial issue existed. The Commission then postponed a hearing on the merits. But in the case at hand, the Commission considered none of the issues within 49 days.

"In Coronado Yacht Club we approved a procedure where the Commission decided, at a minimum, whether it had jurisdiction within the 49-day period and specifically observed that a procedure like the one used here would be inconsistent with the Legislature's intent," Justice Judith McConnell wrote for the court.

Because a determination regarding a substantial issue necessarily includes a determination regarding jurisdictional boundaries, "the question of whether the ECDS project was within the Commission's appellate jurisdiction because it was located between the first public road and the sea was required to be addressed at the January meeting," the court held. When the Commission failed to answer that question within 49 days, the Commission lost jurisdiction, the court held.

The court also hammered away at the staff report urging delay because the city had not provided all relevant documents. The record indicated that the city delivered all relevant documents to the staff by the end of the day on December 17, only three days after being notified of the appeal, according to the court.

In the unpublished part of its opinion, the court rejected the inverse condemnation claim. The court held that the Commission's position was not completely untenable, and, at any rate, the landowners could have pursued the sort of residential development for which the property was zoned.


The Case: Encinitas Country Day School v. California Coastal Commission, No. D038323, 03 C.D.O.S. 3897, 2003 DJDAR 4977. Filed May 8, 2003.

The Lawyers:

For the school: Martin Mullen, Lewis, Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, (619) 233-1006.

For the Commission: G.R. Overton, deputy attorney general, (213) 897-2703.