The Civil Rights Act of 1871 guarantees “a federal forum for claims of unconstitutional treatment at the hands of state officials.” This is where the elements of eminent domain were created. These are known as “taking cases.”
In Knick v. Township of Scott, the U.S. Supreme Court recently overruled a precedent that created a Catch 22 blocking a property owner from bringing takings cases against state and local governments in federal court.
Our Design Review Board (DRB) is tasked with granting or denying applications for variances to the city’s municipal code. The applicant must pay special fees to request a variance. Most property owners do not request a variance when going before the DRB because they design their homes based on the rule of law as articulated in the city’s municipal code. However, the DRB routinely forces applicants to vary their designs from the rule of law at their discretion, usually at the behest of non-property owners, by imposing limitations on what is permissible as stated in the municipal code. When you hear “cut the number of lights in half, lower the roof by 5 feet, reduce the size of the decks to 500 square feet” you are witnessing a takings case without a trial or compensation. This is another form of a variance; issued on a discretionary and discriminatory basis. And unlike a lawful variance, there are no specific findings necessary.
Why would someone want to go to federal court rather than stay local? Because appeals to City Council are costly and never result in compensation for the “taking” by DRB.
Local officials swim in the same warm water with the Design Review Board members. They are so used to the temperature that they don’t recognize when it has become dangerously hot. It takes an objective outsider (federal court) to recognize that neighbors’ opinions or a village group obstructing progress are not justification to take property rights granted by a deed of trust, city codes, and state law.
This new Supreme Court ruling means there’s nothing to prevent a financially strong, morally outraged applicant from filing a federal lawsuit against Laguna Beach for abusing their authority when they deny approval of a design that is in full compliance with our municipal code.
Let’s not wait to be sued. City Council members: please appoint two new DRB members who respect the private property rights of our citizens and the vulnerability of our city.
Ryan Huntley, Laguna Beach