Coastal Commission Holds Sacto Lovefest

JUNE 24, 2011

California Coastal Commission boss, and supporters, lobby for more money and power


A conference on the California Coastal Commission here Thursday, sponsored by Capitol Weekly, provided a forum for longtime CCC boss Peter Douglas. He enjoyed considerable support among panelists and audience members.

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, a self-described “coasty” from Santa Cruz, kicked off the proceedings by warning of sea-level rise of five feet by 2100. Laird equated the Coastal Commission with the civil-rights movement and said that California’s Coastal Act would pass again “by the same margin” as before.

“The Coastal Act is not broken and doesn’t need fixing,” said Ann Notthoff, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, on a panel about development versus the environment moderated by Bill Magavern, who has served as director of the Sierra Club. Magavern also invoked climate change, without challenge from panelists or the audience.

The Coastal Commission, Notthoff said, could teach about operating “on a shoestring budget.” She called the Coastal Act a “remarkable document” and told the audience it would pass again.

Susan Jordan, executive director of California Protection Network said that without the Coastal Commission we would have a four-lane highway at San Simeon, four resorts and a golf course.

Without the CCC, which has been “absolutely starved” for funding, we would have a liquefied natural gas terminal at Oxnard, and more toll roads in Orange County.

Jordan referred to the “coastal economy” but did not quantify the revenue those canceled projects would have contributed to that economy. Without the Coastal Act, she said the state would be unable to cope against the “wealthy and powerful.”

Darla Guenzler, director California Council of Land Trusts, which purchases land for environmental protection, also invoked climate change, along with the five feet of sea-level rise. New protections were needed, she said, and in those the CCC played an “essential role.”

Donald Schmitz, a former CCC analyst who represents clients before the Commission, said if the commission denies a homeowner’s project “you are guilty” and must in effect prove innocence. Schmitz said that this type of treatment, which “takes rights” from people, started with a policy, imposed by the Commission, not legislators, of treating everything as ESHA, Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas.

That brought Peter Douglas out of his seat in the audience, and he interrupted without objection from Magavern. Douglas charged that Schmitz was “totally wrong” and “misrepresenting” the issue. Audience applause followed, without objection from Malavern. Schmitz stood his ground but Ann Notthoff said that the CCC approves “the vast majority” of all cases, and Susan Jordan chimed in that abuses are “narrow.”

On the second panel, about property rights versus the public interest, Dan Jacobson, executive director of Environment California, said that access to coast and its beauty should be preserved. Jacobson mentioned tourism but like Susan Jordan did not assess whether the Commission’s rejection of resorts and golf courses aided or detracted from the coastal economy.

Former Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava called the Coastal Act “majestic legislation” and repeated the charge that the Commission was “starved” for money but like others who made that charge provided no budgetary data or analysis. He called for more money and more staff for the CCC.

Nava also implied that before the Coastal Commission took effect, people from Fresno had trouble accessing Pismo Beach. Suing CCC staff, Nava said, is “irresponsible,” but the former Assemblyman did not elaborate on any abusive behavior by staff that might have prompted a lawsuit.

Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation provided the first challenge to CCC apologists with a discussion of the Nolan case, in which the CCC had demanded an easement, which the courts said was “extortion.” The Coastal Commission, Beard said, “takes things for free.”

Terrence Gossett of Californians for property rights agreed that the Commission does not take “years” to approve a project. Rather, he said, it was a matter of  “decades.” Gossett said it was a myth that only government ownership can protect property, and that the CCC only affects private property owners. Cities and counties, he said, are also affected.

So is agriculture, said Chris Scheuring, of the Natural Resources and Environment Division of California Farm Bureau, who told the audience that property rights is not a “pejorative designation.”

“Ag feels threatened by the Coastal Commission,” Scheuring said. “The Coastal Commission should not have authority over agriculture.” He described the Coastal Act as “too broad,” which made judicial review important, and the Coastal Commission as “ideological.”

At the outset of the conference Capitol Weekly publisher Arnold York said he recognized someone who long ago had been an intern with the CCC and was still there.

“The Coastal Commission seems to be a career,” said York. That also applies to Peter Douglas, who played a role in the 1972 ballot initiative that established a temporary commission, and the 1976 legislation that made it permanent. Douglas has headed the California Coastal Commission since 1985 and developed a reputation as a regulatory zealot with a strong disregard for property rights.

In his speech, Douglas told the audience that his job had been a “labor of love,” based on a “visionary and strong law.” The Commission itself, he said, has “many strengths” and “some weaknesses.” It takes guidance from the precautionary principle that, if you don’t know the outcome of something, don’t allow it. The accomplishments of the Commission, he said, are “things you don’t see.”

Douglas also invoked the five-foot rise in sea level, but did not explain how he knew it would happen, or whether it was a matter of agreement among climate scientists. He avoided any scientific discussion and any discussion of property rights as such.

With the Commission, Douglas said, the burden of proof is on a developer to show why project should proceed, not on the Commission to show why it should not. He derided local government as “parochial,” and “not strong enough” to protect the environment.

Douglas raised specter of the coast as enclave for “people of wealth” but said that the Coastal Act’s provision for affordable housing had been repealed and now the Commission was powerless to do anything about it.

Most of the horror stories about the Commission were “a distortion,” said Douglas, and  Commission staff, were people of “integrity.” He conceded that one commissioner, whom he did not name (Mark Nathanson, imprisoned on bribery charges during the 1990s) had served time in federal prison and suggested that one or two others might have deserved similar treatment. He provided no names.

Douglas described the CCC as “one of the few government agencies that listens,” and part of the “empowerment of the citizen.” The lack of funding was a “weakness,” he said, and the CCC lacks the “tools” for enforcement.

In the question period, an audience member mentioned a bill that would allow the Commission to impose fines directly. Douglas said that the power to impose fines would improve the efficiency of the Commission and reduce violations.

“We’re not going away,” Douglas said at the end, to rousing applause. But not all participants welcomed the prospect of the Commission wielding the power to impose fines.

“It’s not the not the type of agency you would want to give that power to,” said Paul Beard of the Pacific Legal Foundation. “It’s precisely the kind that would abuse that power.” Beard also told CalWatchdog that Commission staff were “particularly difficult to deal with.”

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