Not all Christmas tales have happy endings.
Most of us know the Charles Dickens tale, "A Christmas Carol." It's the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy man who became so bitter after losing the love of his life that he stopped caring about anyone else.
The story has a happy ending: Scrooge's cold heart melts after he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who show him what sadness the future will hold if he doesn't mend his ways.
But not all Christmas tales have happy endings, as Peggy Ann Buckley can attest.
Eleven years ago, Peggy Ann and her husband purchased a scenic three-acre property in Malibu, California where they planned to build a home and share many happy Christmases together. That dream was destroyed when the California Coastal Commission forbid her from building.
Instead of living in a beautiful home, Peggy Ann is now divorced and lives with her sickly 13-year-old son in a trailer on the lot where her home was to be built. Peggy Ann fought the state for eight years seeking compensation from the Coastal Commission. But to no avail. This October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her argument that the Coastal Commission violated her Fifth Amendment right protecting private property against government seizure.
Now, all she has to look forward to this Christmas is figuring out how to pay the $1 million legal bill she accrued in her war against abusive regulatory power.
Peggy Ann's story began in 1988 when she and her then-husband paid $500,000 for a 2.75 acre property in Malibu to build a house. But after spending more than three years getting development permits from the County of Los Angeles, the Coastal Commission ordered the Buckleys to stop work, citing alleged environmental concerns, even though the Buckleys had already invested more than $800,000 in the site.1
When Peggy Ann purchased the property, it was zoned as single-family residential, which exempted it from the Coastal Commission's jurisdiction. The Coastal Commission is charged with managing certain types of development on California's coast, but not residential home construction in established neighborhoods. Los Angeles County was supposed to be the only governmental body with regulatory authority over Peggy Ann's property.
But even if the Coastal Commission had been authorized to regulate the Buckleys' property, there was nothing unusual about their building plans to justify the kind of penalties the Coastal Commission imposed.
Peggy Ann's land is a half-mile from the ocean and surrounded by houses. While she was waging her legal battle, new construction took place all around her site, including on a vacant lot directly across the street from Peggy Ann's land. The Coastal Commission never raised objections to those homes.
Los Angeles County certainly saw no problem with the building plans: By 1991 it had issued most of the construction permits. The problem was that the Coastal Commission did not want to cede any authority to the county over coastal development.2 Peggy Ann became a casualty in a bureaucratic turf war.
The situation turned from bad to worse in March 1991 when a menacing landslide began to develop on part of the lot. The county issued an abatement order allowing Peggy Ann to repair the landslide by grading the site. But when she started the grading work, the Coastal Commission issued several stop-work orders countermanding the county. As a result, the landslide ruined about half her land.
Tired of the Coastal Commission's harassment, Peggy Ann went to court to seek relief, arguing that the Coastal Commission did not even have authority to regulate her land.
The courts largely agreed with Peggy Ann. A state trial court ruled that the Coastal Commission had no jurisdiction over her land and awarded her thousands of dollars in damages. The Coastal Commission then appealed the ruling to the state appellate court which reversed the damages award but still held that the agency had wronged Peggy Ann. She took her case to the state supreme court to get compensation but the court denied her claim.3
Not surprisingly, it's been difficult for Peggy Ann and her son, who suffers from Lyme Disease, to enjoy Christmases during this long legal battle.
"For the past two Christmases, I was too busy writing legal briefs to enjoy the holidays. These Christmases have been miserable," says Peggy Ann.
At least during past holidays Peggy Ann had hope that the courts would vindicate her. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has dashed this hope, it's going to be especially difficult for Peggy Ann to enjoy this Christmas.
But it needn't be. The Coastal Commission need only be as enlightened
as Scrooge to make this a Christmas Peggy Ann will always remember.
1 Peggy Ann Buckley v. California Coastal Commission,
United States Supreme Court, 1999.
John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].