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Nollan v. California Coastal Commission

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission


Nollan v. California Coastal Commission


Beachfront property in California can be some of the most beautiful—and expensive—in the nation.  However, all ocean beaches in the United States are considered to be public land for public benefit, and cannot be owned by an individual.  When people begin to build homes that block and restrict access to these public lands, legal disputes can result.  Nollan v. California Coastal Commission is a case that involved homeowners building larger homes, and whether the new construction allowed the government to require an easement for public access on their properties.


Beaches and Land Use


Beaches are considered to be public property that all people can use, not just people living on the beach.  In order to protect governmental interests, in California, beach residents were required to submit plans to the California Coastal Commission before receiving any building permits.


Nollan, the plaintiff in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, had purchased a beachfront lot.  He submitted a plan for the small beach bungalow that was on the lot at the time of purchase to be demolished, and in its place, he proposed building a substantially larger residence.  Upon examination of the plan, the Commission replied to Nollan that the plan would only be accepted if the Nollans agreed to create an easement for 20 years that would allow people access to the beach.


At the time when Nollan received the reply from the California Coastal Commission, this rule had been in place for some time for homeowners wishing to construct larger dwellings on the beach.  The California Coastal Commission believed that the granting of these easements would make it easier for people to continue to access the beach, and that without the easements it would be quite easy for the beaches to essentially become privatized, with the public no longer aware that they had a right to access them.  43 other homeowners had already agreed to the easements in exchange for receiving their construction permits.  However, Nollan believed the easement was in violation of his constitutional rights, and sued the California Coastal Commission.


Appeals Court Ruling


The California Courts of Appeal ruled in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission that the rule was constitutional, because the larger house imposed on the ability of beachgoers to see and access public beaches.  The 20 foot easement required by the California Coastal Commission would not significantly impact the ability of Nollan to enjoy his property, so the court ruled against him.  He then appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court.


Supreme Court Ruling


The Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the California Courts of Appeal in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission.  The court said that the taking of an easement violated Nollan's right to due process, and that the fact that it was being granted in exchange for a land use permit did not change that fundamental fact.


The court also said that because there had been no easement when the bungalow was on the property, there had not been a right of access through the property previously.  This meant that the larger home did not actually impede anyone's access to a greater degree than the original bungalow had, and the court refused to accept the CCC's notion of a psychological impediment to access caused by larger houses.