Nollan v. California Coastal Commission

Case Background

The case happened in Ventura County, California. The Appellant, Nollans, filed a case against the California County Commission against his conditions to put up a bungalow on his plot along the coastline. The Nollans had leased a piece of land along the coast, but they had the option to buy if they wanted to develop it further. They owned a bungalow on their parcel of land and after years of repair and maintenance, it was rendered irreparable and they decided to demolish it and replace it with another bigger mansion.

The first bungalow was only 46.8 square meters, while the new building they were proposing to put up was 230 square meters.

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They needed a permit from the California Coastal Commission for their new building to get underway. The commission allowed them to build, but gave them condition that they felt were too harsh and deprived them their rights to develop property they owned and should have been allowed to control for their economic gains. While The Nollans were acting in their behalf while the County Coastal Commission was acting on behalf of the public. They argued that by putting up a bigger house along the coast, it would psychologically block access of the public to view and access the coastline, which should be their constitutional right. Despite other 43 neighbors to the Nollans granting such access, the Nollans filed a suit with the Supreme Court arguing that they were at liberty to develop their property, and that the conditions put forth by the Commission were unconstitutional.

The Real Issues

Although there was a public beach near the Nollans’ property, the Commission argued that there was need to ensure that residents could walk along the whole coastline as they wished. The Nollans had erected a stonewall to limit such movements and it was such limitations that the commission wanted to eliminate. They wanted the Nollans to leave a path between the highest water leave and their property where residents would pass by in their beach strolls. On top of this, the commission argued that a bigger structure as proposed by the Nollans would block peoples’ view off the ocean. To compensate for this blockage, which they referred to as a psychological blockage, the commission demanded that the Nollans allow a path through their property to the beach. However, the Nollans argued that they needed compensation if they were to allow any passage through their land and property, When the case could not be decided by an agreement between the two parties, they went to court to seek redress.


The Nollans had a piece of land that stretched to the Californian coastline. They controlled the land through a lease, but had an option to buy it. When their old house became irreparable, they went for a permit to build a bigger mansion on the piece of land, but the County Coast Commission demanded that they must provide the public with an ease of access because they blocked the public from accessing a natural resource – the beach.

When The Nollans refused to comply, the County Coast Commission went to the California court of Appeal and sought an address of their conflict. The court ruled in their favor and demanded that the needs of the commission had to be upheld before the Nollans could develop their property. However, this was not to be as the Nollans went back to court, this time to the Supreme court of the United States

They sought to have the demands of the Commission taken down and disregarded in line with the constitutional mandate of owning and developing property in the United States. After a series of arguments, the Nollans won and the judges held that the restrictions by the Commission were against the fourth and fifteenth amendment of the United States constitution. The Nollans had won the case by a majority, where five of the nine judges held that The Nollans would be allowed to develop their property without the restrictions of the Commission and that there would be no obligations to allow the public to pass through their property. The dissenting judges brought forth their arguments but the case was completely decided in The Nollans’ favor.

Case Outcome

The Court ruled in favor of The Nollans. The reasoning behind this was that there was no change ion land use and that there was no legal or constitutional restriction that the government had put in place to regulate land use, especially when there was no change in the usage of the land in question. The argument was that there was no right for the public to have access to the coastline, and that if blockage of view was the biggest issue, then the Coastal Commission should have argued that The Nollans include a public viewing point on its roof, to compensate for the blockage. Since that was not the Commissions argument, the court held that there was no obligation for The Nollans to allow access to the Coastline through their property.

Further, the Court argued that The Nollans were not changing the land use, and were only replacing the earlier building with a bigger one. In this case, there was no land use change and since the earlier land use did not have any passage, there was no grounds to argue that the new building should have such a public passage.

The dissenting judges agreed with the Commission that there was need o ensure that the public enjoyed the natural resources without hindrance. They argued that there was need to allow lateral passage along the coastline. This argument was rational, but was overruled with the argument that the nab would only make sense if the conditions in the permit served the government in the same way the development ban does. If this is not the case, then the restriction could only be regarded as an “an out and out plan of extortion”. The majority ensured that the government agencies followed the constitution to the latter.

Conclusion and Opinion

Access and utilization of public resources should be eased and allowed at any given time, as per the constitution and the local rules and regulations. One such recreation resources are the coastal beaches. However, it is equally constitutional and fair to allow people to develop their property as they please, as long as they do not cause adverse effects to the public. If their developments caused adverse effects, then the public interest should take precedence ahead of the property owner. However, the line between development of property and the rights of public access is not clear since there is no measure for adversity of access to the resources.

The Nollan V. California Coastal Commission is an important case because it tried to delve deep into the conflict between the societal needs and the rights of owning property. It had both social and economical implications because by blocking people from accessing the coast, whether physically or psychologically, there would have been a worse off society. On the other hand, declining The Nollans a permit to develop their property would have denied then a chance to make profits. In such a difficult case, it was important to rule the case in a manner that everyone, the County Commission who represented the public and The Nollans won.

Allowing an ease of access would have been the best option (Beatley, Brower & Schwab, 2002). Although the coast was sparsely developed at the time, there was already an issue in Malibu where a full blockage was already being experienced. It was important that at that early moment in time, Ventura County and California could have avoided conflicts in future when the coastline would be more densely developed. Whenever the interest of the society seems to be bigger than that of an individual or a group, the society wins. Therefore, the County decision to ask for a passage between the property and the waterline should have been upheld and supported because of the interest of the many people. The psychological block is undesirable, but should not be a very big concern as long as there is ease of accessibility and utilization of the resource. In this case, both the County who represents the interests of the people and the investor would have won.

Further, to ensure that such conflicts were avoided, it was important to ensure that the County had a better plan for the land use, especially near such resources as the coastline. An example to that would be to have a public access area where there were no restrictions to access at all (Beatley, Brower & Schwab, 2002). This argument could be better than regulating investors to develop their property, which could also impact the society in a bigger way through economic gains of such developments. It could also increase the scenic appearance of their coastline, thus increasing the utility they get every time they manage to access the coastline. Erecting a wall to block passage along a continuous coastal water seems unusual and unlikeable.

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