George and Sharlee McNamee have a beautiful home, an ocean view and a bounty of children and grandchildren who invade their house every weekend. The breeze is fresh, the view is stunning and retired life in Corona Del Mar, Calif., is good.
But the McNamees wake up every morning fighting for their rights. In this case, the freedom to use a picnic table, shed and shower in their own backyard.
"We fight for two reasons, property rights and freedom," says George McNamee, a silver-haired former insurance salesman. "My wife and I decided a long time ago, those two things matter. Without that, there isn't much left."
For the last decade, the McNamees' backyard has been a battlefield. The retired couple has spent $250,000 in legal fees protecting amenities worth little more than $100.
Those numbers are shocking, but not to those who know the regulatory reach and zeal of the California Coastal Commission, which claims that items in the couple's backyard -- the picnic table, a thatched palapa, a shower and barbecue -- are illegal. Failure to remove them results in a fine -- and that fine is $6,000 per day.
"It doesn't matter if you've built something ugly or if you have built something lovely. If you have built something in the coastal zone without getting a permit either from your local government or the commission, you've broken the law," says Sara Christie, the Coastal Commission's legislative director.
According the commission, if private land is contiguous to public land in the coastal zone, the state has a right to regulate how it is used and what gets put there.
The McNamees bought their home in 1976, a few years after the Coastal Commission was formed. The commission maintains that couple illegally upgraded facilities in the yard that were already there, and that they need a permit specifically to update or replace old items in their yard.
The McNamees say they were granted a renovation permit in 1983 to completely fix up the house and believed the permit later gave them leeway to replace their old picnic table and barbecue, which were falling apart. The commission told them nothing about needing permission to replace the barbecue and table back in 1983, they said.
Only in 2001, they say, did the commission tell them they needed a permit. The McNamees applied and were denied. They were told to contract out real estate studies, including a soil report, a geological report, a wave report and a botany report. The McNamees complied, spending $10,000 to obtain the four estate reports. But the commission again denied them a permit for existing structures.
"If we start letting the law slide in individual cases, cumulatively the result of that will be a statewide loss of public access and coastal resources," said Christie.
The McNamees offered a compromise -- they would get rid of the flower garden, palapa and shed if they were allowed to keep the picnic table, shower and barbecue. The commission said no.
"The commission wants the McNamees to convert their private backyard into a public nature reserve for the pleasure of the viewing public," said the couple's attorney, Paul Beard, of the Pacific Legal Foundation. "It is important we are able to restrain these kind of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats in order to set an example to other agencies around the country that people have property rights that need to be respected."
Beard is representing the McNamees in the California Court of Appeals as the $6,000 daily fine is on hold per judicial order. If the McNamees lose their appeal, the family says it will comply with the state's order.