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Nollan v. California Coastal Commission

Mr. And Mrs. Nollan Build Their Dream Home

For years, James and Marilyn Nollan had leased a parcel of beachfront property in Ventura County, California. The site near Santa Barbara, perhaps two hours' drive north of Los Angeles, was popular for swimming and sunbathing: a quarter mile to the north lay the Faria County Park, a public beach, and 1,800 feet to the south was another public area known as "The Cove." The property's oceanside boundary had been determined in conjunction with mean high tide. Between the shoreline and the main portion of the property stood an eight-foot-high concrete sea wall. Hence between the sea wall and the water, even at high tide, there was a strip of sand which constituted a private beach belonging to the property leased by the Nollans.

The land contained a bungalow, which the Nollans regularly subleased to others, but after years of use as a rental property, the 504-square-foot house needed replacing. Meanwhile, the Nollans had decided to purchase the lot, which the owners said they could do on condition that they demolish the bungalow and build a new home there. In accordance with this desire and with state law, the couple went to the California Coastal Commission to request a coastal development permit. They submitted an application on 25 February 1982 in which they proposed demolition of the bungalow and its replacement with a three-bedroom house comparable to those in the neighborhood.

The Nollans were told that the commission would grant their application--if they agreed to allow the public an easement, or a right to pass through their property. According to this easement, pedestrians could use the portion of the Nollans' property between the high-tide line and the seawall as a walkway to move between the public beaches on either side. The Nollans protested, and the commission overruled their objections. On 3 June 1982, the couple filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus, an injunction ordering a public official to undertake a specific action, with the Ventura County Superior Court. The court agreed with their claim that the commission's restriction on their development could not be imposed in the absence of proof that building their house would actually have a clear and negative impact on public access to the beach. The court remanded the case to the commission for a full hearing.

At the hearing, officials for the commission announced that the new house would add to "a `wall' of residential structures" that would "psychologically" prevent the public "from realizing [that] a stretch of coastline exists nearby that they have every right to visit." This "burden" on public access could only be offset by providing the public with an easement across the Nollans' property. The Nollans then filed a supplemental petition with the superior court, this time arguing that the commission violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which had been applied to the states in the Fourteenth. Again the superior court ruled for the petitioners, and ordered the Commission to strike the permit condition.

The Commission appealed to the California Court of Appeals; meanwhile the Nollans, without notifying the Commission, satisfied the condition of their purchase option by tearing down the bungalow. According to the later record of the U.S. Supreme Court, they built their house and bought the property, all in fulfillment of the plan they apparently had with the property's earlier owners--but without the approval of the commission. The court of appeals reversed the ruling of the superior court, and ruled in favor of the commission. Its opinion on the Coastal Act was based on its reading of the California Public Residence Code Annotated. The precedent for its ruling on the constitutional question came from an earlier California case involving similar issues.

When the Nollans appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, they raised only the constitutional issue. Briefs of amici curiae (friends of the court) urging affirmance of the court of appeals's ruling were filed by officials representing the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin--29 states in all--as well as the Council of State Government, Designated California Cities and Counties, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Solicitor General Fried of the United States filed a brief urging reversal. The California Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders also filed briefs.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Nollan v. California Coastal Commission - Significance, Mr. And Mrs. Nollan Build Their Dream Home, Limits On The State's Power To Take