In City of Malibu v. California Coastal Commission (2012) ___ Cal.App.4th ___, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, considered whether California Public Resources Code section 30515, known as the override provision of the Coastal Act, allows a public works agency to apply to the Coastal Commission to override policies and standards in a locality’s local coastal program merely because it is a public works agency.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a joint powers agency of which the conservancy is a constituent member, (collectively, the Conservancy) requested the City of Malibu (City) amend its local coastal program in part to facilitate the Conservancy’s future plans to develop four park properties. In response to the Conservancy’s request, the City amended its local coastal program and submitted it to the Coastal Commission for review. The amendments, however, were not satisfactory to the Conservancy and the Conservancy proposed its own alternative amendments to the Coastal Commission. The Conservancy asserted that section 30515 allows it, as a “person authorized to undertake a public works project,” to request, and for Coastal Commission to adopt, proposed amendments to the City’s certified local coastal program even over the City’s objection. The Coastal Commission agreed with the Conservancy’s interpretation of section 30515 and approved the Conservancy’s amendments instead of those proposed by the City. The City responded by filing a lawsuit arguing that the Coastal Commission abused its discretion by adopting the amendments proposed by the Conservancy over the City’s objections. The trial court agreed and the Conservancy appealed.
On appeal, the Court looked to the plain language of section 30515 and concluded that the statutory interpretation proposed by the Conservancy and Coastal Commission would lead to absurd results. If the conservancy’s interpretation were correct, any public works agency in California would be on “equal footing” with a city to seek Coastal Commission certification of amendments to its local coastal program over the city’s objections. Instead, the Court held section 30515 permits the Coastal Commission to override a locality’s local coastal program where a person applies to the Coastal Commission to actually “undertake a public works project or an energy facility development that would otherwise be prohibited by the local government’s certified [local coastal program.]” The interpretation proposed by the Conservancy and Coastal Commission would permit public works agencies to circumvent the local land use process by rendering the Coastal Commission as the land use decision maker; an interpretation that is not countenanced by the statute. Accordingly, the Coastal Commission lacked jurisdiction to approve the Conservancy’s proposed amendments to the City’s local coastal program because the Conservancy was not proposing to undertake a public works project.
Section 30515 provides a public agency with a procedural recourse to override a local coastal plan only where a public works project or energy facility development is actually undertaken and other very narrow criteria are met.
Written By: Tina Thomas, Chris Butcher and Grant Taylor (law clerk)
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