Every movement needs a monument, a place where people decided their time for action had come. That place for the legal and housing crisis in California just might be in Huntington Beach.
For it is the Bolsa Chica property in Huntington Beach that gives us one of the most instructive examples of how lawsuit abuse has driven up the cost of housing to catastrophic levels, and driven many California families away from buying their first home.
This story began in the 1960s, when an oil company decided it would convert its 400-some oil wells in a swamp called Bolsa Chica into a residential neighborhood complete with a marina.
By 1972, the plan was so popular that a Los Angeles Times editorial called the Bolsa Chica proposal a “Land Deal for the Common Good.” The editorial said coastal developments are usually “costly controversies that generally find all parties settling for less than they wanted. Rare is the case in which all agree on goals and plans. Rarer still is the case in which everyone comes out ahead. But that is what appears to be happening in Huntington Beach.”
Then the lawyers showed up and soon the lawsuits began. Dozens of them. And they all followed the same pattern: The landowner and neighbors and local leaders would reach an agreement, then a small group would go to court to undo it.
In an effort to reach an agreement, the landowner soon dropped plans for a marina, slashed the number of homes, agreed to sell part of the land to the state at cut-rate prices, and also agreed to contribute millions of dollars for wetlands restoration.
Deal after deal was made, deal after deal received support from neighbors, local newspapers, and local leaders. By 1989, the Los Angeles Times declared the latest negotiation a “victory for the public and the environment.” A lawsuit killed that victory.
Two years later, another settlement was reached. This time a Times editorial declared a “Deal is a Deal,” and reminded people it would be bad faith to put more obstacles in this landowner’s way. Especially when the people of Huntington Beach had achieved so much. That didn’t matter; Bolsa Chica remained mired in more lawsuits.
Another settlement was reached in 1997. Calling the deal a “good balance,” the Times commended both sides for their “triumph.” By then, lawyers opposing the proposal had been paid more than $1 million as part of various settlements.
Then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis even got in on the act, commending the people involved for their “wisdom and vision,” echoing comments also made at a White House ceremony where the president bestowed a national award on local leaders for their efforts on Bolsa Chica.
This project has been passed by the California Coastal Commission on three separate occasions. That wasn’t enough either, because there were more lawsuits and more delays. Today, the land still sits, fallow. Not because it doesn’t have consensus among leaders and neighbors and the property owner. It does. But because a small group of people have exploited environmental protections in the law to prevent this landowner from using his land, raising the cost of housing to catastrophic levels.
This is not just the history of Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica. This is the story of housing all over California: Consensus, followed by abuse. Negotiation, followed by bad faith. We know the results. California has the highest housing costs in the world. More people in eastern Europe own their own homes than many places in California.
Today, employers cannot attract employees here. And, less than one-third of our working families can afford the price of a new home. That is important because in America, homes are more than just shelter; home equity is the primary way that our families create wealth.
But all over the state these opportunities are being destroyed every day by land-use practices that, at best, can only be described as warmed over eastern European-style central planning combined with the worst of tort law abuse.
The biggest irony is this: This is not even good environmentalism. Because of these delays at Bolsa Chica, millions of dollars to restore local wetlands have been lost. Parks have gone unbuilt as well. Habitat and wetlands continue to degrade, all because California has too many lawyers filing too many lawsuits destroying too many housing opportunities in the name of an “environmental” movement they know , and care , nothing about.
For 30 years, the property owners at Bolsa Chica have labored to build a community where real people can live real lives in real homes. Thirty years is enough and three approvals are enough. A deal is a deal.
Maloney is the executive director of Orange County Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.