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Alberstone v. California Coastal Commission

December 29, 2008


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. David P. Yaffe, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS104626).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bigelow, J.


Daniel Alberstone and Lisa Ogawa appeal from the denial of their petition for writ of mandate, which sought to compel the California Coastal Commission (the Commission) to hear de novotheir neighbor's application to develop the vacant lot next to appellants' home in Malibu. We affirm.


Appellants own a home located at the end of Escondido Beach Road in Malibu. On November 8, 2004, real party in interest Jeff Stibel applied to the city of Malibu (the City) to build a 3,578 square foot single-family beachfront home on the vacant lot next to appellants' property, plus a 457 square foot garage, an alternative on-site septic system, and a bulkhead on the sandy beach. During the application process, a question arose as to whether Stibel's land consisted of one or two parcels. A previous owner applied to the Los Angeles County Assessor to consolidate the parcel numbers, but a permit was never issued by the Commission.

Appellants met with the City staff throughout 2005 and submitted correspondence outlining their objections to the development. In a letter dated January 23, 2006, appellants objected to the development on the grounds it violated Malibu's Certified Local Coastal Program (LCP) because: (1) it would require the construction of protective devices that would contribute to shoreline erosion or alter natural land forms; (2) it would require shoreline protection or bluff stabilization structures during the full 100 year economic life of the development; and (3) it was well below the minimum lot width requirements.

On February 6, 2006, the Malibu Planning Commission approved the development upon a recommendation by the City staff. Appellants appealed the Planning Commission's decision to the Malibu City Council. The appeal was denied on May 22, 2006. Appellants further appealed to the Commission, which found the appeal failed to raise a "substantial issue" and declined to hear the matter.

Appellants then petitioned the trial court for a writ of administrative mandamus to compel the Commission to hear their appeal and consider Stibel's application de novo. The trial court found the Commission's refusal to hear appellants' appeal was not contrary to law or an abuse of discretion, and was supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. This appeal followed. Both the Commission and Stibel have submitted briefs in response.


I. Standard of Review

Public Resources Code section 30801 gives appellants the right to judicial review of a decision by filing a petition for writ of mandate pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5. (La Costa Beach Homeowners' Assn. v. California Coastal Com. (2002) 101 Cal.App.4th 804, 814.) "The inquiry in such a case . . . extend[s] to the questions of whether [the Commission] has proceeded without, or in excess of jurisdiction; whether there was a fair trial; and whether there was any prejudicial abuse of discretion. Abuse of discretion is established if the [Commission] has not proceeded in the manner required by law, the order or decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence." (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (b); Eden Hospital Dist. v. Belshé (1998) 65 Cal.App.4th 908, 915-916; Pub. Res. Code, § 30801.)

Given this directive, the trial court presumes that the agency's decision is supported by substantial evidence, and the party challenging that decision bears the burden of demonstrating the contrary. (Desmond v. County of Contra Costa (1993) 21 Cal.App.4th 330, 336.) In reviewing the agency's decision, the court examines the whole record and considers all relevant evidence, including that evidence which detracts from its decision. (Bolsa Chica Land Trust v. Superior Court (1999) 71 Cal.App.4th 493, 503.) "Although this task involves some weighing to fairly estimate the worth of the evidence, that limited weighing does not constitute independent review where the court substitutes its own findings and inferences for that of the Commission. Rather, it is for the Commission to weigh the preponderance of conflicting evidence, as [the court] may reverse its decision only if, based on the evidence before it, a reasonable person could not have reached the conclusion reached by it." (Kirkorowicz v. California Coastal Com. (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 980, 986; Sierra Club v. California Coastal Com. (1993) 12 Cal.App.4th 602, 610.)

On appeal from the denial of a petition for writ of mandate, our role is identical to that of the trial court with respect to the administrative record. That is, both the trial and appellate courts must determine whether the record is free from legal error. Thus, the trial court's conclusions and disposition of the issues are not conclusive on the court of appeal. (Sierra Club v. California Coastal Com. (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 547, 557.)

In spite of this, appellants first focus on what they perceive to be errors made by the trial court in denying their petition for writ of mandate. In particular, appellants argue the trial court's factual conclusions were not supported by substantial evidence. Given the authorities cited above, it is clear that our role is not to review the trial court's decision or reasoning and we need not address ...

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