Perhaps California has found a new way to fund health care, jobs, housing and other provisions for its huge illegal-alien population.
The state fined a homeowner $4.1 million for a gate on his property installed by the previous owner on a five-foot-wide strip of land that had been designated as a potential future easement.
The lawsuit for the rights and financial future of Warren Lent was filed by the Pacific Legal Institute, which has won multiple property disputes in the past few years.
Warren and Henny Lent bought a house in Malibu in 2002. Before they bought it, there was a side yard with a narrow stairway that provided emergency egress.
The steps led down to a wood landing that covered a county-owned storm-water pipe.
It had a gate barring entry from the street to ensure passersby did not fall onto the wooden landing, which was a dangerous six-to-seven feet lower than the street and another 14 feet above the beach.
Five years after they bought the property — after an investigation found no pending legal issues with the house — the California Coastal Commission claimed the improvements were unpermitted and blocked the easement.
The couple couple contends that claim is false.
The nonexclusive easement had been left unaddressed and undeveloped for 36 years, they argue.
The couple’s legal team found the original easement acquisition was illegal, but they agreed to remove the fence and gate when the easement was prepared for development.
The government agency held a hearing in which it not only argued for its side, it made the final decision and issued a fine of $4.185 million against the Lents.
The reason given was that the couple spent “too much time” trying to find a solution.
According to PLF lawyer Damien Schiff, the items at issue all were there when the Lents bought the house, and there was “no indication in any of the title records they they were unpermitted or otherwise illegal.”
“The public ‘access way’ has never been and is not currently open: substantial public improvements must be constructed by the relevant easement agencies before the public can ever safely use the access way. That is because, from the street down to the beach, there is a 20-foot drop, partially interrupted by a massive county-owned storm drain. The precipitous drop is no doubt one reason why prior owners had installed fence and a gate.”
He charged that the commission essentially failed to provide constitutional safeguards, held a biased decision-making meeting and creating a “constitutional sham” to impose the penalty.
He asserted the government violated due process by imposing a penalty without a decision from a neutral court, set up a quasi-criminal enforcement action, and deprived the owners of their rights to discovery, subpoena and due process.
Secondly, the complaint contends the commission set itself up as an unconstitutionally biased adjudicator.
Critically, one section of law allows the commission to fine landowners then keep the profits from the fines for its own spending.
Further, a fine of more than $4 million “violates the federal and state prohibitions against excessive or arbitrary fines,” he argued.
“Recall that the Lents were fined not for anything they had done, but simply because they in good faith allowed pre-existing, normal residential fixtures to remain in place. Far from hurting the public health or welfare, the Lents actually furthered those interests by keeping in place a fence and gate that helped to prevent the public from falling seven feet or more from the sidewalk down the unopened public access way. The Lents even gave the Commission a set of keys to the gate, to assist the development of the access way,” he said.
A decision is not expected until later this year.
The complaint explains that the gate and steps, which were there when the house permit was approved, likely were required by the city building authority for safety reasons, and the commission then said nothing for more than a generation.
And, the filing explains, the easement was non-exclusive, meaning the homeowner had every right to use the easement as long as such use did not interfere with the commission’s use.
The commission expressed no interest for decades.
The penalty applied to the Lents also was grossly disproportionate, in violation of the Excessive Fines and Due Process clauses of the state and federal Constitutions, the filing contends.
“The Lents’ alleged wrongdoing – leaving in place a gate, stairway, and other innocuous accoutrements of the typical family home, because of a good-faith belief that they were perfectly legal – in no way can justify a $4.185 million penalty.”