The California Coastal Act governs land use planning for California’s entire coastal zone, directing the state Coastal Commission to maximize the public access to and along the coast consistent with the rights of property owners. The Act protects public access by, among other things, precluding development from interfering with such use and protecting oceanfront land suitable for recreational use. The Act also requires the Commission to minimize potential conflicts between the public and beachfront property owners and to resolve potential conflicts between the Coastal Act’s policies in a way that, on balance, is most protective of significant coastal resources.

In Greene v. California Coastal Commission, Cal.App.5th __ (2019) (Case No. B293301), an interesting opinion filed October 9, 2019, the Second District Court of Appeal addressed a challenge to a Coastal Commission permit condition implementing these policies. The case addressed a proposed addition to an existing duplex in Playa Del Rey, a beach community in the western part of Los Angeles, on property that abuts “Ocean Front Walk,” the famed public walkway on Los Angeles’ beaches. After the City approved a permit for the Greene’s proposed remodel the Coastal Commission, which has dual jurisdiction over City coastal property, approved the permit with the condition that construction be setback five feet from the seaward property line.

The Greenes alleged that the Commission erroneously found the five-foot buffer was needed to protect public access to the beach and walkway because the Commission failed to issue findings to “bridge the analytic gap” between the staff’s findings and its decision,” as required under Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles, and that the setback requirement was an unconstitutional taking of their property under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Nollan and Dolan cases. Those cases hold that the government may only exact a private interest in property for the benefit of the public when the exaction bears an “essential nexus” and “rough proportionality” to an adverse public impact caused by the proposed project.

The trial court denied the petition, concluding that substantial evidence supported the Commission’s findings that a setback of less than five feet would effectively privatize the beach seaward of the property, necessitate intrusion into the public right-of-way for routine repairs, and create conflicts between the Greenes and the public. The court also found that the Greenes had not exhausted their administrative remedies on their takings claim because they had not argued before the Commission that the setback condition resulted in a taking and that, in any case, the condition did not result in a taking.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the Greene’s contentions and affirmed the trial court’s denial of their petition for writ of administrative mandate. The Court held first that substantial evidence supports the Commission’s determination that the proposed remodel would have an adverse impact on the public’s access to the beach. The Court agreed that the Commission could reasonably infer from the fact that the remodel’s second floor would be flush with the property line, and the first floor would be only 1.5 feet away, that routine maintenance would physically intrude into the designated location for the walkway. Perhaps more importantly, the Court agreed it was also reasonable for the Commission to find that, based on the close proximity of the proposed remodel to the property line, the remodel would give the appearance that the immediate vicinity of the seaward-facing side of the duplex was private when, in fact, it is public land. This perception would lead to less public use of part of the beach, contrary to the Coastal Act.

The Court also agreed with the trial court that the Greenes failed to raise their takings claim at the Commission hearing. The Greene’s alleged they did raise the point through general objections at the hearing and that their consultant “articulated the principles” of the Nollan and Dolan cases. The Court this held that these general arguments, which did not actually refer to the federal or state constitutions, case law, or other authority on the takings issue, did not put the Commission on notice of a taking issue. To satisfy the exhaustion requirement the Greenes were required to present the “exact issue” to the administrative agency.

Although the consultant representing the Greenes at the Coastal Commission hearing was not a lawyer, the case makes the strict application and consequences of California’s administrative exhaustion requirements clear. As a fundamental rule of procedure that is binding on all courts, administrative remedies must be exhausted before the courts will act. The rationale for the rule is that an agency is entitled to learn the contentions of interested parties before litigation arises so it will have an opportunity to address the contentions and perhaps make litigation unnecessary. To advance this purpose, an interested party must present the “exact issue” to the administrative agency that is later asserted during litigation or on appeal. General objections, generalized references, or unelaborated comments do not suffice. Any objections must be sufficiently specific so that the agency has the opportunity to evaluate and respond to them. In addition, the petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating that the issues raised in the judicial proceeding were first raised at the administrative level.