California Development Sued for Denying Public Use of Beach: A New Coastal Takings Case?

A case is brewing in California that could revisit controversies over constitutional taking of private property and the common law concerning public easements. Douglas Rigg, a 43-year-old architect, is challenging the property owners of a development called Seadrift near Stinson beach that bans the public from use of their beach.

He has sued the Seadrift Homeowners Association. At issue is that the 1972 California Coastal Zone Conservation Initiative, or Proposition 20, which made the coastline public property. The law, which prohibited homes or developments from blocking public access to beaches, also created the California Coastal Commission to enforce the voters’ mandate.

Seadrift was built before the initiative, however, and the development bars the public use of the dry beach closer than 60 feet from the seawall in front of the homes. They have security guards enforcing the ban.

For environmentalists, such cases could reignite the debate over constitutional takings: the need to compensate private owners like Seadrift of public easements.

In Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), the Court required compensation for regulatory takings. In that case. South Carolina’s Coastal Zone Management Act (1977) required owners of coast land in “critical areas” near beaches to obtain permits from South Carolina Coastal Council before committing the land to new uses. The Court found that the regulation deprives Lucas of value that had to be returned in the form of public compensation.

One exception is common law nuisance where a coastal authority can show that the regulation is designed to prevent a public nuisance such as run-off or erosion etc.

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