|Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur, California|
(Bill Lane Center for the American West)
In November 1976, a bookkeeper named Viktoria Consiglio used money from an inheritance to purchase a plot of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of Carmel, California. Two years later, Consiglio and her husband prepared to build a one-bedroom house for use during their retirement. They submitted applications for a building permit only to have their request denied. The impediment was the California Coastal Commission, a statewide regulatory agency that Californians had recently established in order to protect the state’s coastline from environmental damage and overcrowding. The commission ruled that Consiglio’s house would block the view of the ocean from a nearby highway, disrupt a path to a rocky cliff above the sea, and reduce public access to the beach below the development site. Using powers that had been delegated to it by the state legislature, the commission denied Consiglio’s application for a building permit. Consiglio could continue to own this scenic property overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but she would not be permitted to build a home there.
Consiglio eventually sought help from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit, “public-interest” legal foundation established in 1973 by Ronald Zumbrun, a former aide to California governor Ronald Reagan, with help from several prominent California lawyers and businessmen. Zumbrun’s organization photographed the gray-haired woman, standing on a rocky cliff overlooking the Pacific surf, and put the image on the front page of its bimonthly newsletter. The accompanying article, titled “What Happened to the American Dream?” began: “Viktoria Consiglio, unhappy, confused, and angry, wonders what happened to her dream of owning a home by the sea. A dream that has turned into a nightmare of government red tape and legal costs that have taken a big chunk of her income from her job as a clerk-bookkeeper.” Lawyers at the foundation prepared to file suit, on the grounds that the Coastal Commission’s decision was inequitable, unjustified by law, and interfered with the woman’s property rights. The state of California may have certain powers to zone or plan for new development, the foundation argued, but it could not render this woman’s property nearly useless to her.