California Family Wages War Against Council Preventing Them From Renovating Their Own Land

By: Carissa | Last updated: Nov 07, 2023

Brian Johnson resides on a sprawling property in Northern California that his family has owned for 90 years.

The affluent area of Stinson Beach is frequented by wealthy and elite beach-goers. Johnson’s life may seem charmed, but living on Stinson Beach has proven to be a headache for him and his relatives. For almost a decade, Johnson has been trying to get permission from the local council to renovate a dilapidated beach shack that resides on his family’s property. After being denied year after year, he and his family are finally ready to fight for their right to build on land that they own.

The Property Owner’s Project Has Been on Hold for Years

Johnson first applied for a permit nine years ago to request permission to work on a 1,488-square-foot house on his Stinson Beach property.

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A view from Stinson Beach located at 21 Calle Del Onda

Source: Zillow

The plot of land has been in his family for nearly 90 years, but seniority isn’t enough to make officials give their stamp of approval for the renovation. Certain officials have a problem with Johnson’s proposed plan to renovate his beachfront shack, arguing that the land was not suitable to be developed. Johnson has gone back and forth with the council while insisting that he only plans to remodel a previously existing house, not build an entirely new house from the ground up.

Johnson’s Proposal Is Being Contested by Local Officials

The ongoing battle over Johnson’s right to renovate his family’s summer home rages on as he wages a war against the Marin County Planning Commission.

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The Planning Commission of Marin County holds a meeting

Source: Marin County

The 65-year-old property owner hopes to construct a two-story house on an unoccupied piece of property located at 21 Calle del Onda. Johnson’s proposal calls for a detached garage and a new septic system on the expansive 15,200-square-foot lot. 

One Man Has Stood in the Way of the Remodeling Project

Despite his reasonable plans and the fact that he already owns the property, some officials are refusing to budge on their decision.

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An informative sign on Stinson Beach in California

Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The officials have cited the “increasing risk of sea level rise and efforts to protect the coastal environment” as reasons why they have denied his request. Don Dickenson is one of the most vocal opponents of Johnson’s project. The official voted against the home’s remodel during a meeting in August 2023 that set out to determine the fate of Johnson’s property.

Dickenson Has Halted the Entire Process

If there’s a single thorn in Johnson’s side, it’s Don Dickenson.

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A firefighter talks to a homeowner following a large storm in Stinson Beach

Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The official told council members that allowing Johnson’s property to undergo construction would create “significant potential precedent-setting implications.” He noted that the coast has suffered from storms and erosion, causing it to lose ground at a rapid rate. At the meeting, Dickenson explained his stance, saying, “This is an environment that is changing. Maybe it’s changing more rapidly than some people thought.”

Activists Also Have an Opinion on Johnson’s Property

Environmental activists have also been vocal about their concerns for the Stinson Beach area.

A surfer enters the water at Stinson Beach

Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Groups such as the Surfrider Foundation have joined Dickenson to stand against Johnson’s construction project. They also noted that building a home on top of a sand dune in a spot where the county is undergoing a $50 million dune restoration project does not make for good optics. 

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Will There Ever Be a Resolution?

Despite the objections of Dickenson and environmentalists, the committee still voted to approve the project.

The boardwalk leading to Stinson Beach in California

Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

From there, two neighbors filed an appeal, adding further frustration to this never-ending saga. If the appeal is rejected, another appeal will almost certainly be filed to the California Coastal Commission. The anonymous neighbors likely don’t want him to build on the property because of climate concerns, but they also want him to “respect the property rights” of other Stinson Beach residents. 

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The Property Is an Important Part of Johnson’s Family History

Johnson’s land sits in a coveted area where tourists travel to enjoy the hiking, fishing, and surfing that Stinson Beach has to offer.

A view of California’s Stinson Beach from above

Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The beach is a popular and well-known spot in California and is located only an hour away from San Francisco. The shack that sits at 21 Calle Del Onda is 540 square feet and was purchased in 1935 by Johnson’s grandparents. The property was once a swanky retreat from their main residence in Sacramento. Johnson’s grandparents also went on to acquire three plots of land that surround the home.

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Environmentalists Have Concerns About Johnson’s Plan

Scott Tye, the vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Marin chapter, recently addressed his concerns with Johnson’s proposed construction plan.

The ocean at Stinson Beach in California

Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Much like Dickenson, Tye has also voted against the project since 2014. “The [California] Coastal Act says you don’t sacrifice important natural habitat for the development of the property for a commercial residential structure,” he said. Climate concerns have eliminated most of the other properties in that vicinity, with Tye explaining that Johnson’s family home is “one of the few left standing.”

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Johnson Is Determined to Win

While Johnson has a number of formidable detractors, he’s also not alone in his fight against the council.

The sand and sea of Stinson Beach

Source: Wikimedia Commons

His 92-year-old relative, Colette Combs, believes that Johnson should have the right to build what he wants on the property that he owns. Johnson is ready for battle and has mentioned how his proposal has met the requirements of all environmental reviews performed by the county and state. Additionally, he has already spent $335,000 to combat the council and get all of the proper inspections.

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He Has a Knowledgeable Consultant on His Side

For Johnson, winning this war is a matter of principle.

A cyclist looks out at an empty Stinson Beach

Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“It’s not like we’re building an oil refinery or a nuclear power plant on the coast,” he said. Johnson has brought on a consultant named Steve Kinsey to assist him in fighting the council. Kinsy has experience with the California Coastal Commission, having once been a Marin County supervisor. Kinsey has questioned why Johnson has been continuously blocked from his construction project when several other homes have been built on sand dunes without any pushback. 

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He Won’t Stop Until He Can Build

Johnson is not backing down from his quest to build on his family’s lot. “I’m saying build it and let me enjoy it. I’m 65 years old,” he argued.

People along Stinson Beach past beachfront properties

Source: Wikimedia Commons

His goal is to have a nice home for his relatives to enjoy while also having the option of renting it out to earn extra income if they desire. Johnson is hopeful that this battle won’t rage on for much longer, but he’s prepared to fight the good fight until he’s allowed to build on property that belongs to him.

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