Humboldt All. for Responsible Planning v. Cal. Coastal Comm'n

Decision Date16 September 2022
Docket NumberA162602
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


(Humboldt County Super. Ct. No. CV190327)


Pursuant to the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (16 U.S.C. § 1451 et seq.; CZMA), the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) determined that a proposed project on tribal land owned in fee by the Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of Trinidad Rancheria (Trinidad Rancheria), which would involve transferring the real property into federal trust status, was consistent with the California Coastal Act of 1976 (Pub Resources Code, § 30000 et seq.; Coastal Act). The California Coastal Commission (Commission) agreed. Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning (HARP) challenged the Commission's ruling by filing a petition in superior court for a writ of administrative mandamus (Code Civ. Proc § 1094.5). The trial court denied the petition concluding that the Commission's decision was supported by substantial evidence. In this appeal, HARP urges that (1) the Commission's decision must be reviewed for the weight of the evidence rather than substantial evidence and (2) the transfer of coastal tribal land into federal trust status improperly limited the Commission's ability to enforce Coastal Act policies in the area, potentially threatening public access to a beach. We will affirm the judgment.[1]

A. Applicable Statutes

For context, we begin with a brief review of statutes germane to the proceedings.

1. Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 authorizes the United States Secretary of the Interior to acquire lands in the name of the United States in trust for an Indian tribe. (25 U.S.C. § 5108.) A transfer of this sort is known as "fee to trust" and is intended to promote tribal selfdetermination. Here, as part of a project it proposed, Trinidad Rancheria requested that certain of its land, which it held in fee, be transferred into the federal trust.

2. The CZMA

The CZMA declares a national policy to "preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the Nation's coastal zone for this and succeeding generations." (16 U.S.C. § 1452(1).) One of its purposes is to "encourage coordination and cooperation" among federal and state agencies in their "regulation of land use practices affecting" the coast. (16 U.S.C. § 1452(5).)

If a federal agency plans to commence an activity with foreseeable coastal effects, the agency must determine whether the activity "will be undertaken in a manner" fully consistent "with the enforceable policies of approved management programs" of the relevant state, unless prohibited by applicable law. (15 C.F.R. §§ 930.36(a), 930.32(a)(1) (2021); see 16 U.S.C. § 1456(c)(1)(A).)

Where, as here, the federal agency finds that the proposed activity is consistent with those policies, it must submit its determination for review by the applicable state agency, which may concur or object. (15 C.F.R. §§ 930.4(a), 930.34, 930.41(a) (2021).)

3. The Coastal Act and the Commission

The Commission is the state agency responsible for reviewing matters invoking the CZMA in California. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 30008, 30300, 30330.) It implements the provisions of the Coastal Act, which is the state's coastal zone management program. (Pub. Resources Code, § 30008.) The Coastal Act proclaims that the coastal zone is a natural resource of "vital and enduring interest to all the people" and that the "permanent protection of the state's natural and scenic resources is a paramount concern to present and future residents of the state and nation." (Pub. Resources Code, § 30001, subds. (a), (b).)

The coastal zone runs along California's coastline from Oregon to Mexico and includes coastal waters and adjacent shorelands, extending three miles seaward. (California v. Norton (9th Cir. 2002) 311 F.3d 1162, 1167.) The coastal zone does not, however, include lands that the federal government holds in trust. (16 U.S.C. § 1453(1).)

As relevant here, the enforceable policies of the Coastal Act are found in Public Resources Code sections 30200-30265.5. (Pub. Resources Code, § 30200, subd. (a); 16 U.S.C. § 1453; 15 C.F.R. § 930 (2021).) They pertain to public access (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 30210-30212) as well as to recreation (id., § 30221), upland areas (id., § 30223), marine resources (id., § 30230), biological productivity (id., § 30231), archeological and paleontological resources (id., § 30244), and scenic and visual resources (id., § 30251). The Coastal Act is broadly construed to accomplish its purposes. (Id., § 30009; Surfrider Foundation v. California Coastal Com. (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 151, 158.)

B. The Tribal Property and Administrative Proceedings

The property at issue consists of approximately 10 acres between Trinidad Bay and the first public road, within the California coastal zone and the city limits of Trinidad in Humboldt County. Owned in fee by Trinidad Rancheria, the property offers public access and other support functions at the pier, Trinidad Beach State Park, Launcher Beach, and a restaurant.

1. The Tribe's Project and Fee to Trust Proposal

In connection with a project to construct a 1,300-square-foot visitor center for the public and undertake stormwater improvements, Trinidad Rancheria applied to the BIA to have the property transferred into federal trust status with record title in the name of the United States and the tribe holding beneficial interest. According to HARP, upon the transfer of the property into federal trust status, the city, county and state governments will lose regulatory jurisdiction over the property and the Commission will retain only "a small sliver of jurisdiction" that is "subject to several preconditions which the Tribe can easily avoid." (See 16 U.S.C. § 1456; 15 C.F.R. § 923.50 et seq. (2021).)

2. BIA Determination

In December 2018, the BIA notified the Commission that it had determined under the CZMA that Trinidad Rancheria's project was fully consistent with all relevant policies of the Coastal Act, including public access. In particular, the BIA found that the tribe's commitment to maintain public access to the pier and beach areas through a tribal ordinance and to coordinate any future changes in public access with Commission staff would protect public recreational uses at the site.

3. Commission Concurrence

The Commission held a hearing on the BIA's consistency determination on March 7, 2019. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Commission voted to concur in the BIA's consistency determination, finding that the project was in line with applicable policies of the Coastal Act, including public access.

C. HARP's Petition for Writ of Administrative Mandamus

HARP filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5 (section 1094.5), challenging the Commission's concurrence in the BIA's approval. HARP did not allege that the tribe's proposed improvements themselves would violate any policy but that the tribe's commitments to public access were inadequate and the fee to trust transfer would eliminate the Commission's ability to protect public access.

After a hearing, the court denied the petition in January 2021, concluding that the Commission's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Judgment was entered, and this appeal followed.


HARP contends the Commission's decision should be reviewed under the independent judgment standard rather than for substantial evidence. It also contends the evidence was insufficient to support the Commission's decision. Neither contention has merit.

A. Standard for Reviewing Commission Decisions

A Commission decision may be challenged by a petition filed under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5. (Pub. Resources Code, § 30801.) Permissible inquiries include whether there was any "prejudicial abuse of discretion," which can arise where, e.g., the "order or decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence." (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (b).)

Where, as here, it is claimed that the Commission's findings are not supported by the evidence, the trial court must take one of two approaches in reviewing the administrative decision: (1) "in cases in which the court is authorized by law to exercise its independent judgment on the evidence, abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by the weight of the evidence"; (2) "i[n] all other cases, abuse of discretion is established if the court determines that the findings are not supported by substantial evidence in the light of the whole record." (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5, subd. (c), italics added.)

A trial court is authorized to exercise its independent judgment-and therefore obliged to determine whether the weight of the evidence supports the administrative decision-when the administrative decision substantially affects a vested, fundamental right. (Fukuda v. City of Angels (1999) 20 Cal.4th 805, 817; Bixby v. Pierno (1971) 4 Cal.3d 130, 143; Sierra Club v. California Coastal Zone Conservation Com. (1976) 58 Cal.App.3d 149, 154 (Sierra Club).) On appeal, the appellate court decides if the trial court's findings are supported by substantial evidence (although legal issues, such as statutory interpretation, are reviewed de novo). (LaGrone v. City of Oakland (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 932, 940-941.)

If the administrative decision does not substantially affect a fundamental vested right, the...

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