Judge Denies Nearly a Million Dollars in Penalties to California Coastal Commission over Malibu Stairways
• Controversial Case Involves an Enforcement Action on Property in the Encinal Bluffs Area
BY BILL KOENEKER
BY BILL KOENEKER
The California Coastal Commission missed out on a million dollars in civil fines and penalties that a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge refused to award the state agency over a highly controversial decision requiring a Malibu homeowner to build two stairways over a sea stack-like promontory below their bluff top home.
The property owners, the court ruled, should not be penalized for unpermitted development that was already present on their property when they purchased it. They were required to remove a gate, a stairway on a coastal bluff going down to the beach and a lawn that was growing on top of the promontory.
The commission had ordered Graeme and Brenda Revell to build the million dollar staircases that were part of a condition of approval in 1980 for a previous owner to build the house that the Revells purchased years later in 2004. The house was built, but the staircases were never constructed.
The matter was taken to court by the Revells after the commission insisted they pay the current costs of the staircases, but the Revells would only agree to pay what it would have cost the developer had he done the same work in the 1980s.
The coastal panel then slapped the homeowners with notices of violations of the Coastal Act, cease and desist orders, and non-compliance of CCC conditions.
In 2007, Judge David Yaffee issued what could be called a split decision, with the judge ruling that the Revells were obligated to furnish the stairways, but in lieu of that could meet their obligations with a monetary assessment. The CCC had earlier rejected that offer.
The Coastal Commission was told that it could neither order, nor require geological reports for the stairways that could turn out to be more expensive than the stairway themselves.
Finally, Yaffe ordered that nothing in the writ could prohibit the CCC from changing the design of the stairways to meet current ground conditions
Meanwhile, the Coastal Commission, through the state Attorney General’s office, filed a cross complaint seeking over a million dollars in civil penalties.
The Revells’ attorney, Alan Robert Block, a former commission attorney, said, “The Coastal Commission’s decision to take this case to trial reflects how poorly the commission has been managed for the past several years.”
A decision was rendered on the cross complaint this month by Judge Mark Mooney.
“Thus, Judge Yaffe’s order contemplated that the monetary contribution required of the Revells to build the accessway would be based upon the plans as approved by the commission in Aug. 1986. The costs attributable to any reasonable changes to those plans were not to increase the cost of or burden to the Revells. The plan submitted by the commission represents a substantial increase in cost from the plan originally approved. The court therefore finds that the Revells may discharge their obligation under special condition two by tendering to the commission the sum of $50,000,” Mooney wrote in his ruling.
Block revealed that the Revells had previously offered $500,000 to settle with the commission. Block said the deputy attorney-general assigned to the case recommended the settlement. However, the Coastal Commission rejected that offer, according to Block, and that legal counsel was subsequently removed from the case.
“At a time when the state is in dire financial straits, the commission has squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds, on a worthless bridge from nowhere to nowhere,” said Block. “This was bureaucratic waste and mismanagement in the extreme.”
When considering the civil penalties sought by the Coastal Commission, Mooney wrote in his 13-page opinion, “When the court considers the nature, circumstance, extent and gravity of the violation, the Revells’ conduct warrants the imposition of only minimal civil liability. The Revells did nothing more than purchase property upon which an unpermitted development was already present. They did not put in the landscaping, irrigation system, metal fence, locked gate or wooden stairs. Indeed, this unpermitted development may well have been present for more than 20 years before the Revells purchased that property. The fact that the commission did absolutely nothing regarding these unpermitted improvements, despite receiving complaints as far back as 1983, speaks volumes as to the low level the commission placed on the gravity of the violation.” Mooney concluded.
The judge then ruled that the court found the Revells to be the prevailing party and awarded court costs against the commission.