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California Supreme Court rules in closely watched seawall case

Earlier this week, the California Supreme Court handed down a decision in a closely watched case examining whether landowners who oppose building permit conditions but proceed with their project can later challenge these conditions in court.

The case in question concerned two landowners in Encinitas, who sought approval from the city back in 2009 to replace a wooden seawall with a concrete seawall on their neighboring oceanfront properties. 

While the city approved a permit for the project, it also indicated that work could not proceed until approval was secured from the California Coastal Commission.

During this time, however, the landowners saw their property suffer major damage in a storm, with a collapsing bluff destroying a portion of the seawall and part of the stairs leading to the beach. Thereafter, they sought a new permit allowing them to destroy and replace the seawall, and rebuild the stairs.

The Coastal Commission ultimately granted approval but with two major caveats: the stairs could not be rebuilt and the landowners would need to secure a new permit for the seawall in 20 years.

The landowners proceeded with the construction of the seawall and later filed a lawsuit challenging the imposition of these two conditions. As for why they built first and sued later, they argued that their homes were imperiled and, as such, they could not wait for the litigation to run its course.

The case ultimately made its way before the state Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the landowners waived their right to challenge the two permit conditions by proceeding with the project.

“The crucial point is that they went forward with construction before obtaining a judicial determination on their objections,” reads the opinion. “In general, permit holders are obliged to accept the burdens of a permit along with its benefits.”

As to the argument that they had to proceed to save their homes, the court held that they could have secured an emergency permit to erect a temporary seawall during the pendency of the litigation.

What are your thoughts on this decision?

If you have questions about a construction law issue, or would like to learn more about your options as they relate to building disputes, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.