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After 17 Years, Dream Home Is Still That--Just a Dream : Development: Court says Coastal Commission put a Malibu man through bureaucratic delays 'beyond the ridiculous.'

March 20, 1994|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Ken Healing set out to build his dream home in the mountains above Malibu 17 years ago, friends warned him to be patient about getting permits approved.

They understated their advice.

Healing's 2 1/2-acre parcel overlooking the Pacific Ocean became the focus of one the longest disputes ever to involve the California Coastal Commission.

Healing's daughter was in diapers when the conflict began. She was preparing to graduate from high school last month when a state appeals court accused the Coastal Commission of irrational delays that soared "beyond both the ridiculous and the sublime," and ordered the panel to reconsider Healing's application to build.

"All I wanted then was to build a house for my growing family," said Healing, 43.

His lawyers accused the Coastal Commission, which controls development of the state's 1,100-mile coastline, of engaging in some world-class foot-dragging as a way to prevent Healing from realizing his dream.

In siding with Healing, the appeals panel ranked the Coastal Commission's actions among "many virtuoso performances in the theaters of bureaucracy."

Despite the legal triumph, Healing acknowledges that it still may take years to settle the dispute.

He doubts that he will ever live on his property.

"At first I wanted it for a house," he said. "Then I thought the investment value would be nice for retirement.

"Lately, I'm wondering if my heirs will get something."

Property rights advocates, who contend that government exercises too strong a hand in regulating land use, were pleased with the ruling.

Pending his fate before the commission, the judges gave Healing the right to have a separate court proceeding to determine whether the agency's regulation amounted to an unconstitutional "taking" of his land. A ruling in his favor would entitle him to financial compensation.

Until now, such challenges against a state agency have been handled administratively, with plaintiffs unable to obtain a jury trial or subpoena witnesses.

"We see the court's ruling as highly significant for property owners throughout the state who are battling bureaucratic nightmares," said Victor J. Wolski, a lawyer with the nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing Healing.

The Coastal Commission is expected to appeal the decision.

Healing's saga began after he paid $40,000 for the property, with its gleaming views of the ocean and nearby canyon, as an ideal spot for the family home.

He said he was first told by the commission staff that he would be unable to build because the property was in an area of environmentally sensitive habitat. That same year, the commission turned down a similar request from the owner of a nearby parcel. At that point, Healing said, "I put my plans on the shelf," figuring it would do no good to persist.

Ten years went by. In 1987, upon learning that the habitat area's boundaries had been changed to exclude his property, he decided to approach the Coastal Commission again.

Two years later, in what lawyer Wolski called "the classic bureaucratic maze," the coastal panel ruled that it could not approve Healing's plans until they had passed muster with a county environmental review board.

But Los Angeles County, which had for years resisted adopting a local coastal protection plan, did not have a review board.

In 1989, an appraiser hired by Healing determined that, with a building permit, the property was worth $200,000. Without one, it was worth $7,500.

During hearings, members of the coastal panel said they preferred that the property be held as parkland. But the nonprofit Mountains Restoration Trust, which had expressed interest in acquiring it, changed its mind.

After the coastal panel denied his request, Healing turned to the courts.

"To me, it's a case of big government steamrolling the individual," he said. "I see them approving huge commercial developments and I only wanted to build a 2,750-square-foot house."

Deputy state Atty. Gen. Peter Kaufman defends the commission.

"If the commission had approved (development of) his lot, it would have opened the door for 25 others to develop nearby in a significant watershed area," Kaufman said. "His is a trigger point for other properties."

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