A landowner’s attack on a condition of approval of a development permit was barred by the landowner’s failure to contest the same condition when it was imposed on an earlier permit, according to a recent court of appeal decision. Bowman v California Coastal Commission, 224 Cal.App.4th 1053 (2014).

The San Luis Obispo County issued a coastal development permit to rehabilitate a house on a 400-acre beachfront property. The county conditioned the permit upon dedication of an easement for public access along the property’s shorefront. The landowner did not appeal to the Coastal Commission or otherwise contest the condition.

Nine months later, the landowner applied for a second coastal development permit, again to rehabilitate the house and also to replace a barn on the property. This second application requested removal of the easement condition. The county approved this second permit, and removed the condition, but environmental groups appealed to the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission determined that the easement condition is permanent and binding, and that removal of the condition would violate the Coastal Act policy favoring public access to coastal resources. It conditioned the second permit on implementation of the easement condition of the first permit. The landowner sued, seeking to overturn the condition.

The court sided with the Coastal Commission. The county made a quasi-judicial determination that the lateral easement condition was valid when it issued the first permit, which became final when the landowner failed to appeal the condition imposed on the first permit. That administrative decision is protected by the doctrine of collateral estoppel, the court ruled, which precludes litigation of claims that were contested in a prior proceeding or that could have been contested.  Accordingly, the landowner could not launch what amounted to a collateral attack on the first permit condition simply by challenging the second permit.

The court clarified that the status and nature of the coastal development permit were not relevant, since collateral estoppel applied to the final decision to impose the condition rather than the permit itself. As a result, it was irrelevant that the landowner might have been entitled to “walk away” from the first permit and that the first permit might have expired. Likewise, it did not matter that the Coastal Commission might have modified the permit condition. The landowner pointed to “nothing that would compel the Commission to modify that access easement condition, a condition the validity of which is not subject to attack.” The court also found that whether the landowner accepted the first permit was also beside the point.

In any event, the court found that the record contained sufficient evidence to support the Coastal Commission’s implied finding that the landowner accepted the permit by completing work on the house restoration; the contention the landowner could accept this benefit while rejecting the burdens of the permit was, according to the court,  “untenable.”  Finally, the fact that the landowner rehabilitated the house before even the first permit was issued was even more unavailing.  “Suffice it to say, [the landowner] will not be allowed to obtain an advantage from illegal activities.”

Though the illegal activities undoubtedly colored the court’s review of the situation, the case again demonstrates how important it is to act quickly in contesting unacceptable conditions to a development approval.