California woman seeks $2 million

California woman seeks $2 million
April 1, 2000

In 1988, Peggy Ann Buckley and her husband purchased a 2.75 acre parcel of property in Malibu, California to build a house. After spending more than three years getting the required development permits from the County of Los Angeles, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) ordered them to stop all work on their property, citing alleged environmental concerns. The Buckleys had already invested more than $800,000 in the site.

Buckley, who has since divorced her husband, has been waging an eight-year legal battle in state and federal courts to reclaim control of her land. When she and her ex-husband purchased the property, it was zoned as single-family residential, exempting it from the regulatory authority of the CCC, which is charged with managing certain types of development on California’s coasts. Los Angeles County was ostensibly the only government entity that had authority over Buckley’s building plans.

There was nothing unusual about the plans. It was a half-mile from the ocean and surrounded by houses already built. Furthermore, while Buckley waged her legal battle, new construction took place all around her site--including the construction of a house on a vacant lot across the street from her.

Los Angeles County had no problem with Buckley’s building plans and by 1991 had issued most of the development permits so construction could begin. But the CCC did not want to cede any authority to Los Angeles County over coastal development and sought to block Buckley’s building plans at every turn.

Things reached a crisis point in March 1991, when a menacing landslide started to develop on part of Buckley’s lot. Los Angeles County issued abatement orders requiring Buckley to repair the landslide by grading the site. But when she started the grading work, the CCC issued several stop-work orders. As a result, the landslide ruined about half her land.

Tired of the harassing tactics of the CCC, Buckley went to court to get relief from the agency. The CCC filed a countersuit claiming she owed thousands of dollars in fines for illegal development work--development the CCC did not even have authority to regulate.

The courts have largely agreed with Buckley. A state trial court ruled the CCC had no jurisdiction and awarded Buckley thousands of dollars in damages. The CCC appealed the ruling to the state appellate court, which reversed the damages award but still held the agency had wronged Buckley. She took her case to the state supreme court to get compensation, but the court denied her claim.

In 1999, Buckley was unsuccessful in her attempt to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case. She is not giving up. Currently living on her property in a trailer, she will continue to seek compensation for $2 million in damages and the $1 million in legal bills she has incurred.

Explaining why she continues to fight, Buckley says, “This is absolute tyranny. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”