Case of the Month – Riddick et al. v. City of Malibu, et al.

In a legal dispute between property owners and the City of Malibu, the focal point was the addition of an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to a residence, a project impeded by the City’s denial of a permit application. The crux of the disagreement centered on the interpretation of Malibu’s ordinance governing exemptions from coastal development permit (CDP) requirements. While the property owners contended that their proposed ADU should be exempt, the City argued otherwise. Initially, a trial court ruled in favor of the property owners, directing the City to process the ADU application without requiring a CDP. However, the City appealed, disputing the trial court’s interpretation of the ordinance.

On appeal the ruling of the trial court was affirmed.  The Court of Appeal concluded that the language of the ordinance encompassed ADUs directly attached to existing residences within the exempt class of improvements. Consequently, the Court upheld the trial court’s decision, compelling the City to process the permit application under state ADU standards.

The ruling was narrowly tailored, however, to this ordinance and an interpretation thereof.  The Appellate Court did not, as the property owners argued, conclude that California law on ADUs created an automatic right to a permit.  So, while this property owner established a right to have their application processed under this specific ordinance, the Court found that property owners are not automatically entitled to a permit to build an ADU as a result of State law. This aspect of the decision underscored the nuanced nature of property rights and the continuing legal authority of local governments over much of the permit process.

Beyond the immediate parties involved, the case offers insights into broader debates on housing policy and land use regulations. ADUs have emerged as a potential solution to housing shortages and affordability challenges in many communities. However, their proliferation is often hindered by bureaucratic hurdles and regulatory barriers.

The Malibu case exemplifies these challenges, highlighting tensions between property owners seeking to exercise their rights and municipalities tasked with balancing competing interests, including environmental preservation and community character. By affirming the importance of statutory interpretation and adherence to state standards, the Court of Appeal provided clarity in navigating the complex landscape of ADU regulations.

As jurisdictions grapple with the imperative of expanding housing options while preserving community integrity, the Malibu case offers valuable lessons. It underscores the need for transparent and equitable processes in permit adjudication, ensuring that property owners have a fair opportunity to pursue lawful development while safeguarding the broader public interest.