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Hagopian v. State

California Court of Appeal, Second District, First Division

January 24, 2014

Stefan HAGOPIAN, et al., Petitioners/Plaintiffs and Appellants,
STATE of California, et al., Defendants and Respondents.

[As Modified February 21, 2014.]

APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. James C. Chalfant, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. BS128597)

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[167 Cal.Rptr.3d 224] Blum Collins, Craig M. Collins, Santa Monica, and Gary Ho, for Petitioners/Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, John A. Saurenman, Assistant Attorney General, Christina Bull Arndt, Deputy Attorney General, for Respondent State of California.

Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, Deborah J. Fox, Los Angeles, and Peter S. Hayes, Oakland; John F. Krattli, County Counsel, Richard D. Weiss, Deputy County Counsel, and Lawrence L. Hafetz, Assistant Counsel, for Respondent County of Los Angeles.


[167 Cal.Rptr.3d 225] CHANEY, J.

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Under the California Coastal Act of 1976 (Pub. Resources Code, ยง 30000 et seq.; hereafter the Coastal Act), any person wishing to develop property in a coastal zone in California must first obtain a coastal development permit, which is issued in some zones by the California Coastal Commission (the Commission) and in others by local governments. A person who develops coastal property without a permit may be exposed to substantial civil penalties and subjected to a restoration order.

Stefan, Kathryn and Rahel Hagopian (appellants or petitioners) developed coastal property without first seeking or obtaining coastal development permits and were issued cease and desist and restoration orders by the Commission. They appeal from the judgment entered after the trial court denied their petition for a writ of mandate against the Commission and the County of Los Angeles. The trial court rejected petitioners' challenge to the Commission's jurisdiction and proceedings, rejected their argument that the county should be compelled to assume permitting authority under the Coastal Act, and denied their claims for declaratory and injunctive relief.

On appeal, petitioners argue (1) the County of Los Angeles is the proper permitting body for the coastal zone in which their property is located; (2) the county should be ordered to assume this permitting authority; (3) the Commission should be ordered to compel the county to fulfill this obligation;

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4) the Commission violated petitioners' due process rights and denied them a fair hearing; and (5) the Commission's findings were unsupported by substantial evidence.

We conclude the Commission is the duly authorized permitting agency for the coastal zone in which petitioners' property is located and did not err in finding petitioners' development to be in violation of the Coastal Act. We further conclude the County of Los Angeles has breached no statutory duty. We therefore affirm.


The facts are largely undisputed. On August 27, 1987, the Commission approved a coastal development permit authorizing Everett Rollins to construct a 3,375 square foot single family residence at 1732 Topanga Skyline Drive, Topanga, an unincorporated area of western Los Angeles County. The property was situated in an undeveloped, environmentally sensitive Mediterranean biome consisting of coast live oak woodlands and mixed chaparral. Rollins' coastal development permit was subject to his compliance with several conditions, including conformance with an engineering geologist's recommendations and recordation of the permit and its conditions as a deed restriction. The permit provided that " any deviation from the approved plans must be reviewed and approved by the staff and may require Commission approval."

Four years later, in 1991, Stefan and Kathryn Hagopian purchased the parcel from Rollins (Parcel 24) and in 1994 purchased an adjoining parcel (Parcel 7). In 2000, they and Rahel Hagopian purchased a third adjoining parcel (Parcel 6).

In 2007, Stefan and Kathryn applied to the Commission for a permit exemption to construct a 1,196 square foot guest house on Parcel 24. Commission staff denied the exemption, informed the Hagopians that such construction would require a coastal development permit, and sent them a blank permit application.

The Hagopians thereafter ignored permit requirements and by 2009 had begun or completed construction on at least eight structures on the property, graded for a [167 Cal.Rptr.3d 226] second residence on Parcel 24, and created commercial vineyards by removing substantial swathes of vegetation, grading and filling several areas, and installing an access road, a large solar panel array, and a pool and tennis court.

The Commission issued a notice of violation of the Coastal Act on March 24, 2009, again invited the Hagopians to apply for a coastal development

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permit, and informed them they ran the risk of incurring fines of up to $6,000 per day and penalties of up to $15,000 per day of noncompliance.

On April 24, 2009, the Hagopians informed the Commission they intended to apply for a coastal development permit and sought an extension of time to do so. Monthly letters and telephone and face-to-face conversations followed over the next fifteen months, during which the Hagopians sought several more extensions of time, made and then withdrew an application for a permit exemption, and raised various arguments why they did not need a coastal development permit. They argued the development on their property was exempt from the Coastal Act, the Commission had no jurisdiction because the County of Los Angeles was the sole permitting authority under the act, the developed areas of the property had contained no environmentally sensitive habitat, and their right to install vineyards was vested by virtue of prior use of the property for agricultural (primarily grazing) purposes. Coastal Commission staff dutifully responded to each of the Hagopians' arguments, invited them to substantiate their claims of prior agricultural use and lack of sensitive habitat, and granted at least six deadline extensions. The Hagopians never attempted to substantiate their claims or apply for a coastal development permit, but instead continued to grade and develop the property.

The Commission issued a notice of intent to record notices of violation against the subject property and commenced cease and desist and restoration order proceedings. On May 18, 2010, the Commission mailed the Hagopians a " statement of defense" form with which they could dispute allegations that they had violated the Coastal Act. After requesting and obtaining two extensions of time to submit their statement of defense, the Hagopians ultimately failed to return the form or provide any defense. On July 2, 2010, the Hagopians informed Commission staff they were no longer interested in further communications.

On August 12, 2010, the Commission held a public hearing concerning the matter, during which Commission staff presented extensive evidence of habitat destruction on the property, including before-and-after photographs showing woodland ridges had been turned into commercial vineyards. Several members of the community voiced opposition to the Hagopians' development activities, and two neighbors spoke of extensive environmental devastation caused by six years of heavy construction on the Hagopians' property.

The Hagopians presented no evidence at the hearing, but indicated they stood upon their prior communications with Commission staff. Their counsel objected to the hearing on due process grounds, argued the Commission had no jurisdiction to issue coastal development permits because the Coastal Act vested that authority in the County of Los Angeles, and argued the

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Commission had no authority to hold a violation hearing because the Commission was an adversarial party in the proceedings. Counsel further argued, without explanation, that the coastal development permit issued to Rollins in 1987 authorized the Hagopians' landscaping, and their viniculture [167 Cal.Rptr.3d 227] was permissible under unspecified Los Angeles County zoning regulations.

After the presentation of evidence, several of the 11 Commission members present commented that " a very egregious case" of ongoing " massive commercial development" had occurred without Commission approval, resulting in " wholesale destruction" and " mountain top removal" reminiscent of " West Virginia coal mining." The Commission unanimously found the Hagopians violated the Coastal Act and issued cease and desist and restoration orders.

On October 8, 2010, the Hagopians filed the petition, asserting the Commission lacked jurisdiction to enforce the Coastal Act in the Santa Monica Mountains area and had violated their due process rights. Petitioners admitted they had graded on the property, erected structures, and removed vegetation in a coastal zone but asserted they needed no coastal development permit to do so because they had disturbed no environmentally sensitive habitat and had obtained county building permits for all structures erected.

The petition sought a peremptory writ of mandate directing the Commission to vacate and set aside its findings of violation, rescind its cease and desist and restoration orders, and " cease requiring the Petitioners to apply for coastal development permits from the Commission (as opposed to the County)." The petition also sought a declaration that permitting authority under the Coastal Act was vested in the County of Los Angeles, not the Commission, and that the county had " issued all necessary permits for the Petitioners' actions." Petitioners further asked the superior court to order the Commission and the County of Los Angeles to agree on the terms of a local coastal program and to order the county to adopt ordinances prescribing procedures to be used in issuing coastal development permits.

The trial court, Judge James C. Chalfant presiding, bifurcated proceedings. On September 29, 2011, Judge Chalfant found the Commission was the duly authorized body to issue coastal development permits, and the County of Los Angeles was under no mandatory obligation to take over that authority before its own local coastal program was certified. On February 29, 2010, the court found the Commission did not violate petitioners' due process rights and substantial evidence supported its enforcement orders.

The Hagopians timely appealed from the ensuing judgment.

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A. Standards of Review

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