Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, U.S. Supreme Court (1987).

Facts: James and Marilyn Nollan own a beachfront lot in Ventura County, California, situated between two public beaches: Faria County Park, a quarter mile to the north, and "the Cove" which is 1,800 feet to the south. The oceanside boundary of the property is formed by the historic mean high tide line, and the beach portion of the property is separated from the rest of the lot by an eight foot high concrete seawall.

The Nollans had originally leased their property with an option to buy, and at the time the building on the lot was a 504 square foot bungalow which had fallen into disrepair during the Nollan's lease. In order to purchase the lot, the Nollans were required to demolish the bungalow and replace it; thus, in February of 1982, they submitted an application to the California Coastal Commission for a coastal development permit, proposing to demolish the bungalow and replace it with a three-bedroom house in character with the surrounding neighborhood. The Commission granted the permit, but subject to a recordation of a deed restriction granting the public an easement to pass along the beach portion of their property (between the high tide line and the seawall).

In June of 1982, the Nollans filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus asking the Ventura County Superior Court to invalidate the access condition, arguing that the condition couldn't be imposed without evidence that their proposed development would have a direct adverse impact on public access to the beach. The court remanded the case to the California Coastal Commission for a full evidentiary hearing on the issue; the Commission complied but after further factual findings, it reaffirmed its imposition of the condition.

Procedure: The Nollans filed a supplemental petition for a writ of administrative mandamus with the Ventura County Superior Court, this time arguing that the imposition of the access condition violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment as incorporated against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Superior Court found in favor of the Nollans but on the grounds of their first petition argument.

The Commission appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which reversed the Superior Court. (However, while the appeal was pending, the Nollans tore down the bungalow, built the new house and purchased the land.) The Nollans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis of the Takings Clause.

Issue: Does the conditioning of a development permit on a public easement across a landowner's premises constitute the taking of a property interest and therefore violate the Fifth Amendment?

Holding: The court found the permit condition to be a taking, and thus unconstitutional.

Rationale: In order for land-use regulation to not effect a taking, it must "substantially advance legitimate state interests" and it must not "deny an owner economically viable use of his land." The Commission argues that legitimate state interests include: protecting the public's ability to see the beach, assisting the public in overcoming the "psychological barrier" to using the beach created by a developed shorefront, and preventing congestion on public beaches. The court agreed these were legitimate state interests but concluded that the public easement condition was not a reasonable means for those ends, so the rational nexus was missing: "The evident constitutional propriety disappears, however, if the condition substituted for the prohibition utterly fails to further the end advanced as the justification for the prohibition. When that essential nexus is eliminated, the situation becomes the same as if California law forbade shouting fire in a crowded theatre, but granted dispensations to those willing to contribute $100 to the state treasury."

Finally, the court points out that if the state wants an easement across the property, it should use the power of eminent domain and compensate the Nollans.

Notes: Justice Brennan has a detailed dissenting opinion, and indeed, much of Scalia's opinion is a response to Justice Brennan's arguments.

On the rational nexus, he counters, (p 244, second p) "the Court finds fault with this measure because it regards the condition as insufficiently tailored to address the precise type of reduction in access produced by the new development. The Nollans' development blocks visual access, the Court tells us, while the Commission seeks to preserve lateral access along the coastline. Thus, it concludes, the State acted irrationally." He then goes on to explain why this "narrow conception of rationality... has long since been discredited as a judicial arrogation of legislative authority." Further, (p244, last p) "Even if we accept the Court's unusual demand for a precise match between the condition imposed and the specific type of burden on access created by the appellants, the State's action easily satisfies this requirement. First, ..."