Nollan v. California Coastal Commission – Case Brief

Nollan v. California Coastal Comm’n, 483 U.S. 825, 107 S. Ct. 3141, 97 L. Ed. 2d 677 (1987).

Facts: Nollan (P) applied for a permit to build a residence on a parcel of beachfront property located between two public beaches. Nollan originally leased the property with an option to buy conditioned on his promise to demolish a small bungalow on the property. To build on the lot the Nollans had to submit a plan to the California Coastal Commission (D) in order to obtain a coastal development permit. The plan called for the removal of the bungalow and the construction of a three-bedroom house conforming to other homes in the the neighborhood. The Commission conditioned approval for Nollan’s permit upon his allowing an easement for public passage across the property in order to make it easier for the public to pass between the two public beaches to the north and south of Nollan’s property.

Nollan sued, claiming that the Commission deprived them of their property rights without due process. Nollan contends that the condition could not be imposed absent evidence that their proposed development would have an impact on public access to the beach. The trial court ruled for Nollan, the court of appeals reversed, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert.

Issues: 1) Must the conditioning of a grant of a land use permit upon the landowner’s grant of a permanent easement be substantially related to a legitimate government interest in order to avoid violating the Takings Clause? 2) Will the lack of a nexus between the condition and the original purpose for requiring the building restriction alter that purpose and cause the condition to constitute a taking?

Holding and Rule (Scalia): 1) Yes. The conditioning of a grant of a land use permit upon the landowner’s grant of a permanent easement must be substantially related to a legitimate government interest in order to avoid violating the Takings Clause. 2) Yes. The lack of a nexus between the condition and the original purpose for requiring the building restriction alters that purpose and causes the condition to constitute a taking.

If the California Coastal Commission had simply required Nollan to make an easement available on a permanent basis in order to increase public access to the beach we have no doubt that there would have been a taking. We have repeatedly held that as to property reserved by its owners for private use, the right to exclude others is among the most important sticks in the bundle of rights commonly characterized as property. Where there is a permanent physical occupation, our cases have found a taking without regard to whether the action achieves an important public benefit or has only minimal economic impact on the owner. A permanent physical occupation has occurred when individuals are granted a permanent and continuous right to pass so that the property may continuously be traversed even though no particular individual is permitted to station himself permanently upon the premises.

The only question that needs to be determined is requiring the easement as a condition for issuing a land use permit alters this basic outcome. Land use regulation does not effect a taking if it substantially advances legitimate state interests and does not deny an owner economically viable use of his land. A broad range of governmental purposes and regulations satisfies these requirements.

This constitutionality disappears if the condition substituted for the prohibition utterly fails to further the end advanced as the justification for the prohibition. When this nexus is eliminated the situation becomes untenable. The lack of nexus between the condition and the original purpose of the building restriction converts that purpose to something other than what it was. The purpose would then become the obtaining of an easement without payment of compensation. Unless the permit condition serves the same governmental purpose as the development ban, the building restriction is not a valid regulation of land use but an out and out plan of extortion.

A state cannot condition a property use permit on an act that does not address the problem caused by the permitted use. A land use regulation is not a taking if it substantially advances state interests and does not deny an owner economically viable use of the land. In this case the California Coastal Commission substituted a condition for outright prohibition that failed to further any of the legitimate government interests that were advanced as justification. The easement for public access did nothing to help the public’s view of the beach. If the Commission wants an easement across Nollan’s property it must pay for it.

Disposition: Reversed.

Dissent (Brennan, Marshall, Blackman, Stevens): This decision has imposed an unwarranted and discredited standard of precision upon a State’s exercise of police power. The police power of the State grants it the authority to impose conditions on private development. This power is to be judged according to what the State could have rationally decided. Under these facts, the California Coastal Commission has conditioned development upon preservation of public access to the ocean and tidelands by requesting an easement. The Court finds fault because it regards the condition as insufficiently tailored to address the precise type of reduction in access produced by the new development. Such a narrow conception of rationality has long been discredited as judicial arrogation of legislative authority.

The Takings Clause has never been read to require the states or the courts to calculate whether a specific individual has suffered burdens in excess of the benefits received. The demand for this heightened precise fit is based on the assumption that private landowners possess a reasonable expectation regarding the use of their land and the public has attempted to disrupt it. Here the situation is reversed; it is Nollan who is the interloper. The public’s expectation of access considerably antedates any private development of the coast.

Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña


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