In a decisive rebuke of the California Coastal Commission, the state’s Sixth District Court of Appeal issued a ruling Nov. 15 that orders the agency’s 2017 approval of the Rancho Los Robles project—which would have transformed over 33 acres in Las Lomas into 54 housing units—be vacated because the commission didn't complete a full environmental review before approval.
Additionally, the court ordered the developer, Heritage Western Communities, Ltd., to pay the legal costs of appellants Friends, Artists and Neighbors of Elkhorn Slough (FANS) and LandWatch.
Like many local developments that end up being litigated, the project has a long and winding history. The county Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2008 in a 3-2 vote, even though the county Planning Commission recommended denial of the project due to water supply and traffic congestion concerns.
FANS, and two commissioners from the Coastal Commission, appealed that approval in 2009. In 2011, Coastal Commission staff reached out to Heritage to ask whether it still intended to move forward with the project, and let Heritage know that the agency's staff would be recommending against granting a coastal development permit for the project due to inconsistencies with the region’s Local Coastal Plan, which dictates land-use in the coastal zone.
In the ensuing years, Heritage downsized the project from 80 to 54 units—with 50 of those units as market-rate single family homes—and promised to dedicate some of the land for parks, which the local community lacks.
It finally came before the Coastal Commission in November 2017. At the time, the agency’s staff had not undertaken a full environmental review of the project because it recommended denial based on its inconsistencies with the Local Coastal Plan, including the lack of an adequate water supply (the region's groundwater basin, per a Coastal Commission report, is in a state of "severe overdraft").
Nonetheless, the Coastal Commission approved the project in a 7-5 vote, which FANS and Landwatch appealed to Monterey County Superior Court, which upheld the ruling in June. FANS and Landwatch then appealed to the Sixth District, which vacated the approval on Nov. 15.
The court’s reasons for overturning the approval were made clear in the ruling: In 2018, Coastal Commission staff issued a report with revised findings that supported the approval of the project.
However, the court ruled, none of those revised findings were presented to the commission before they took their vote, and none of the commissioners voting in favor of the project articulated any mitigations that might offset its adverse environmental impact.
Therefore, the court ruled, the commissioners voting in favor of the project were not making an informed decision based on a full environmental review, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act and the Coastal Act.
Mark Blum, an attorney representing Heritage in the case, says his client has not yet decided whether it will petition for a re-hearing of the case or if will petition for the case to be heard by the state Supreme Court.
"Obviously the developer is very disappointed, and it’s very disappointing for the Las Lomas community," Blum says, adding that the ruling was strictly focused on a procedural matter, not on whatever impacts the project would have had.
"I think legally it's a very bad and ill-considered opinion," Blum says.