LT-WR, L.L.C. v. California Coastal Commission et al, No. B187666 (Cal. Ct. App., 2d Dist. May 25, 2007)
The Second District Court of Appeal of California upheld a trial court decision that the California Coastal Commission (the “Commission”) exceeded its authority when the Commission denied a private landowner a permit for gates and “no trespassing” signs. The appellate court found that the Commission’s ruling that there was a “potential” to establish prescriptive rights for public use on the property “speculative.”
Like “squatter’s rights”, prescriptive access rights are created when the public openly and repeatedly accesses private property for a sufficient period of time without the landowner’s permission. The Commission’s denial of the permit in effect decreed the existence of such access rights and was inappropriate because the Coastal Act does not grant the Commission the authority to create prescriptive public access rights. Only a court has the authority to adjudicate and determine whether prescriptive access rights exist.
LT-WR, L.L.C. (“LT-WR”) owns a 23-acre parcel located in the Santa Monica Mountains in unincorporated Malibu. Without the Commission’s approval, LT-WR constructed two gates with “no trespassing signs” at the intersection of its property and the public road to protect antennae facilities and the mobile home of the facilities’ caretaker. On July 15, 2002, LT-WR applied for an after-the-fact approval from the Commission for the unpermitted gates and signs.
On January 14, 2004, believing that the gates and signs protecting the telecommunication structures and the single mobile home were akin to a “gated community,” the Commission voted unanimously to deny the permit application on the grounds that a “potential” for prescriptive rights of public access existed.
Trial Court Decision
Finding that there was “no evidence in the record of a public easement having been adjudicated over [LT-WR’s] private property,” the trial court directed the Commission to vacate the permit denial. The trial court noted that the Commission has “not been given the authority to declare/designate public easements over private property.”
Furthermore, because the LT-WR property is surrounded on three sides by parkland, the trial court found that the gates and signs do not inhibit public access to public lands in violation of the Coastal Act. In addition, the trial court determined that “neither the rustic physical look of the two gates, nor their existence, remotely resemble the gates or create the appearance of gated communities, and are not akin to ‘gated community.’
Appellate Court Decision
The Second District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling. On the effects of this decision, the appellate court noted that “the Commission is not vested with the authority to adjudicate the existence of prescriptive rights for public use of privately owned property.” The Commission’s denial of the permit based on the Commission’s belief that a “potential” for prescriptive public access rights had the same affect as creating prescriptive access rights. As such, the Commission violated the principle that “inherent in one’s ownership of real property is the right to exclude uninvited visitors.” According to the appellate court, LT-WR was entitled to protect its property and to minimize trespassing by maintaining gates and “no trespassing” signs.
For more information on the effects of this decision, please contact Jeffrey W. Forrest. Jeff Forrest is an associate in the San Diego office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, LLP. He is a member of the Real Estate, Land Use and Natural Resources, and Environmental Practice Groups.