A Summary of Benson v. California Coastal Commission (2006) 139 Cal. App. 4th 348

By Brenna Moorhead

"Predictions and suggestions from staff may be helpful or misleading to a party with a matter before the Coastal Commission. Therefore a party should take such advice with caution." (Id. at 348.)

John Benson alleged a due process violation by the California Coastal Commission. Benson’s project, the expansion of the Baywood Inn in San Luis Obispo County, had been approved by the County’s planning commission under a mitigated negative declaration. It was appealed by the Concerned Citizens of Los Osos, first, to the County Board of Supervisors and, upon rejection, to the California Coastal Commission ("Commission"). The Commission sent notice and a copy of the appeal to Benson as well as notice of the hearing date in May 2003. Subsequently, the Commission’s staff issued, with a copy sent to Benson, a report on the appeal recommending that that the Commission "open and continue the public hearing to determine whether a substantial issue exists…" (Id. at 351-52.) 

Prior to the May hearing, Benson had two telephone conversations with Commission staff. While Benson and the staff differed on their recollection of the substance of the phone conversations, Benson claimed that staff assured him that "no substantive action would be taken at the hearing" and that he need not attend. (Id. at 352.) However, on the day of the hearing, the Court’s issuance of a decision in Encinitas Country Day School, Inc. v. California Coastal Commission (2003) 108 Cal. App. 4th 575. The Encinitas court held that the Commission lost jurisdiction when it continued an open appeal beyond 49 days without determining at a minimum whether a substantial issue exists according to sections 30621, subdivision (a), and 30625, subdivision (a) of the California Public Resources Code. This prompted the Commission staff to change its recommendation to a finding of "substantial issues." The Commission found substantial issues.  

In his appeal, Benson contended that he was denied due process based on insufficient notice of the Commission’s May hearing. The Court found that Benson had received actual notice when the Commission sent notice of the hearing and a copy of the appeal. This actual notice satisfied due process requirements. Also, the Court found that Benson failed to show reasonable reliance on staff’s statements during the phone conversations. In its reasoning, the Court contended that "[t]he public interest in coastal resources is too great to be decided by the comments of staff uttered in private conversations with a party to the appeal." (Id. at 355.)

For more information please contact Brenna Moorhead.  Brenna Moorhead, AICP, is an associate in the Real Estate, Land Use and Environmental Practice Group in Sheppard Mullin’s San Francisco office.