Malibu Man Fined $4.2 Million Over Disputed Beachfront Gate
When Warren and Henny Lent bought their Malibu beach house in 2002, it was the realization of a lifelong goal. Warren, a doctor by training, says he worked a second job on top of the time he put in at a Beverly Hills plastic surgery practice just to afford the down payment.
It was “a dream come true which lasted about two months,” Lent says.
That was when the Lents learned, via a casual conversation with a neighbor, that their house had a five-foot-wide public access easement along its eastern side that people could use to get down to the water. These easements aren’t uncommon, and at first, the Lents didn’t think much about the fact that their home had one too.
After all, it wasn’t like their side yard made for a great means of accessing the beach given that it contained two steep drops, and that running underneath the whole thing was a large storm drain which could make building anything on top of it an engineering challenge.
Nevertheless, this easement put the Lents on a collision course with one of the most powerful agencies in the state, and one with a history of antagonizing property owners: the California Coastal Commission (CCC).
Beginning in 2007, the commission began demanding that the couple remove a gate and stairs obscuring their side yard so it could build its own improvements there. The Lents said they would comply once the commission was actually ready to break ground.
Negotiations continued until 2016, when the commission—tired of arguing and newly empowered to issue fines—slapped the couple with a $4.2 million penalty. This remains one of the largest fines the commission has ever handed out.
“If I lose that property and lose that equity, that’s my retirement,” Warren Lent tells Reason, saying that penalty would require him to forfeit his house to the state. “We don’t want to lose what we’ve legitimately earned.”
The couple has since sued the commission. They argue that the millions in penalties they’ve been hit with is totally disproportionate to any injury they’ve caused and thus violates the U.S. and California constitutions’ prohibition on excessive fines. Their lawsuit also says that the administrative hearing at which the commission handed down this excessive fine—where the Lents had no ability to cross-examine witnesses or challenge the speculation or hearsay of public commentators—violated their right to due process.
The case is now before the California Supreme Court. Its decision will have huge ramifications for landowners all along the coast who currently run the risk of being hit with massive daily fines handed down with minimal process should they object to the commission’s plans for their property.
‘The Single Most Powerful Land Use Authority in the United States’
In 1972—around the same time an anti-growth revolution was sweeping California—voters approved the creation of the 12-member CCC. According to the voter information guide for that year, the explicit goal was to stop a supposed “corporate land grab” of the state’s shoreline.
To that end, the commission was given the power to approve, deny, or condition everything from new hotels to home expansions within a zone that generally extends 1,000 yards inland from the high-tide line.
That power to permit development along 860 miles of some of the most valuable real estate in the world made the commission “the single most powerful land use authority in the United States,” in the words of Jonathan Zasloff, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Those sweeping powers have also given rise to endless legal controversies.
In 1982, a Ventura couple sued the commission after it refused to approve a permit for a second story on their house unless they also agreed to the creation of an easement on their property. The case, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, eventually wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court where the majority ruled against the agency in a landmark, if legally wonky, opinion that requires there to be a “nexus” between the purposes of the commission’s development regulations and the conditions it places on permit applicants.
Despite that ruling, the commission continues to unconstitutionally antagonize coastal landowners, said Mark Miller, a former Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) attorney who now works as a legal advisor for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, last year. (PLF litigated the Nollan case, and is currently representing the Lents.)
“People want their permits. So even if the demand being put on them [from the coastal commission] would violate Nollan, often the permi
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