Good job, California!
We started laying waste to our 1,100 miles of matchless coast almost as soon as nonnatives laid eyes on it. Since 1850, the in-rushing world has wiped out at least 90% of California wetlands, those marshy factories for healthy water and wildlife.
It’s thanks in part to the Coastal Commission that the entire California coast has not been plundered, with its beaches ending up like some of Mexico’s resorts, looking like a stucco Manhattan built along the high-tide line.
In 1972, voters decided to put the brakes on the abuses by creating the state Coastal Commission. Its stated modest mission, rather longer than a bumper sticker: “Protect, conserve, restore and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.”
But in the four decades since, in spite of the griping that the commission is too powerful -- usually by developers caught trying to pull a fast one -- the commission hasn’t had the direct power that other state agencies have: to fine those who flout coastal development laws.
The state Senate could change that with a vote this week, as my colleague Tony Barboza writes, to give the commission that authority.
It could sure use it.
For about as long as the commission has existed, midnight dumpers and zoning scofflaws -- pulling stunts like getting a permit to clear one small road to one home and then grading a virtual freeway -- have simply brazened it out, building or grading or filling streams or clearing plants and wildlife and virtually daring the commission to do anything about it.
“Contumacious” is the word that comes to mind to describe the arrogance that some violators show toward coastal protections.
Because the commission must now go to court to get fines levied -- something it’s done only four times in 40 years -- it’s sometimes a paper tiger, whose cease-and-desist orders might just as well get used as wallpaper in some property owner’s illegal guesthouse.
The commission once went after a nonprofit that didn’t even bother to try to get a permit when it created an “artificial reef” out of old tires off Newport Beach. Even after the state Supreme Court backed up the Coastal Commission’s order that it be dismantled, the mess never got cleaned up.
When the commission has collected, it’s because violators have ponied up rather than pursue the case or endure the bad PR blowback -- like Internet mogul Sean Parker, for the un-permitted construction for his fantasy redwoods wedding this year.
Any wonder that nearly 2,000 cases remain open? Some of them are against beachfront homeowners who try to block legal public access to public beaches with low, petulant tricks like posting fake “no parking” and “closed for repairs” signs and locking gates and passageways on public spaces and rights of way.
On at least one occasion, the homeowner agreed to public access in exchange for getting construction permits -- and then reneged after the project was done. Oh yeah? Make me.
With the power to fine, the commission can make them at last.
Ronald Reagan was governor when voters created the Coastal Commission, and he didn’t like it; he told some Orange County high school students that the 11-month-old law was “lousing things up real good” but still thought the commission “will make this thing work.”
Some Republicans were ardent in its defense. Republican state Sen. Ed Davis, who was the LAPD chief before going to the Legislature, got a bill passed to give the Coastal Commission the same power the state Senate may give it now: to crack down on illegal development with fines of up to $6,000 a day. But it was vetoed by Davis’ fellow Republican, Gov. George Deukmejian, who had already cut the commission’s budget.
Don’t put it past the same business interests that lobbied Deukmejian almost 15 years ago to do the same in the state Senate this week. They may succeed, given the willowy spines of some elected officials.
And if they don’t, I’ll bet you a bouquet of coastal sea lavender that some bright-boy corporate hack will try to take to the ballot initiative to try to persuade a new generation of voters to un-create the Coastal Commission.