The Coastal Commission – Short of Clout, Short of Staff

        Ever since the Coastal Commission was created in 1976 we’ve been hearing about what a dreadful burden it places upon developers. The truth, as always, is more complex.

       Last month Sean Parker (sound familiar?  Prinicipal at Napster,  the smarmy character played by Justin Timberlake in the Facebook movie) decided to have a romantic seaside wedding in Big Sur.  In a voluntary settlement, he ended up paying $2.5M to set straight the many violations he caused by “building rock walls, a stone bridge, a cottage, dance floor and other structures in a sensitive Big Sur forest without permits” as reported by Paul Rogers of the SJ Mercury-News. The Coastal Commission brokered the deal, but it turns out they have NO authority to issue fines when people commit gross violations like blocking access to public beaches, destroy wetlands or build unpermitted homes. Under the law as it is now written, the Coastal Commission has to go to court to enforce its own rules.  

         On top of this, Rogers reports, “The Commission has only 12 staff members in its enforcement division to police the entire 1100-mile coastline. It has a total staff of 135, compared with 212 in 1980. Its budget is $19M, half what it was in 1980 when adjusted for inflation.”  

        But change may be coming.

        A bill moving through the state Legislature would give the Coastal Commission the ability to impose fines.  The bill,  AB976, by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, passed the Assembly in May by a 42-32 vote, and the measure has already cleared two Senate committees. Atkins notes that more than 20 other State agencies can issue fines on their own. In the case of the Coastal Commission, limited staffing and funds have resulted in over 1637  backlogged cases, meaning that unless the parties voluntarily settle, many violations go uncorrected.  Here’s a breakdown:

Blocking access to public beaches: 29%

Illegal road building and grading: 27%

Development without permits in sensitive habitat and wetlands: 24%

Removal of coastal vegetation without permits: 24%

Water pollution: 13%

Diking, filling and dredging: 8%

Geological hazards: 6%

Marine resources: 5%

Public safety: 4%

Flood hazards: 3%

(Numbers add up to more than 100% because some cases have multiple violations.)

       Look for this to be a major environmental battle in Sacramento this year.  The Chamber of Commerce is definitely opposing it. On the other hand,  having laws on the books which aren’t enforced consistently does not contribute to a stable business environment.   Meanwhile, the settlement money will be used to build public trails in Big Sur among other projects.  Ironically, the settlement came about because the Ventana Inn, which was the venue for the wedding, threatened  to cancel unless Parker paid the penalties for their past years of land-use violations.  Gotta love that Silicon Valley money.


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