PLF/CAPR Victory

The Prospect received this press released and felt it was significant to pass on.

J. David Breemer
PLF Principal Attorney

"Call this the ‘forced farming' case," said Pacific Legal Foundation Principal Attorney J. David Breemer, who represents the Sterlings in their challenge to the Coastal Commission's permit condition. PLF is a nationally known litigator for property rights, and the leading watchdog against abuses of landowners' rights by the California Coastal Commission.

"The court found the commission's arrogant demand to be unconstitutional, and every property owner who is subject to the Coastal Commission has reason to celebrate this ruling," said Breemer. "The court's decision confirms that the Coastal Commission is not above the law, and not above the U.S. Constitution."

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge George A. Miram wrote that, "[T]he imposition of the [agricultural] easement here constitutes an unconstitutional taking, as it is disproportionate to the public impact of the house [that the Sterlings] proposed. Further, the required nexus between the public impact and the affirmative agricultural easement has not been adequately substantiated."

The Coastal Commission was trying to coerce the Sterlings to permanently convert 142 acres of land into a farm or cattle operation, even though all they want is one home," said Breemer. "The Sterlings aren't farmers and they aren't ranchers, and the land is made up of dry, sparsely vegetated slopes that has never been suited for a farm or a ranch."

"This ruling vindicates our rights against the Coastal Commission, an agency that seemed determined to confiscate my family's property rights," said Dan Sterling. "The commission's scheme would have locked up our 140 acres of land forever, preventing us or our children from ever seeking a second home, and instead requiring us to farm what is essentially unfarmable land to keep it in the family."

"From the first, it was clear that the Coastal Commission was violating the Constitution," said Breemer. "The Fifth Amendment prohibition on ‘takings' forbids government from using the building permit process to extort property from the permit applicant. That's exactly what the commission was trying to do. It was exploiting the permit process as a chance to try to confiscate property from the Sterlings."

Nollan v. California Coastal Commission was the landmark 1987 Supreme Court case establishing that governments can't impose unrelated demands as the price of permits and other regulatory actions. The Nollan case was brought to the Supreme Court by Pacific Legal Foundation.

The Sterlings have been living in a mobile home since buying their land a decade ago, while attempting to secure a building permit for an approximately 6,000 square-foot home. In 2006, they finally acquired a permit from the County, but the Commission took the case on review.

After substantial delay, the Commission finally held a hearing on the Sterlings' proposal on February 5, 2009. At the hearing, the Commission staff recommended a permit condition requiring imposition of an "affirmative" agricultural easement on all of the Sterlings' land outside their 10,000 square foot building area. The Commission approved it. The condition requires the Sterlings to dedicate an easement to a public or publicly approved trust group, and requires that the land be labeled agricultural, forever. The condition allows the holder of the easement to come in on the Sterlings' land to make sure that the easement is being used as directed.

Summary : Court finds Coastal Commission's "forced farming" mandate unconstitutional. The court's ruling is found on Pacific Legal Foundation's Web site.

About Pacific Legal Foundation
Pacific Legal Foundation ( is the oldest and most successful public interest legal organization dedicated to property rights, limited government, and a balanced approach to environmental protection.

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