Battle For The Beach
Coastal Commission prepares to fight devastating court ruling.
Thursday, January 9, 2003
''It''s like the ring race in the Lord of the Rings," says Peter Douglas, the executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "The opposition never sleeps. They want the ring of power."
The opposition Douglas refers to-developers, Malibu celebrities, wealthy golf-course builders and the like-stole the all-powerful ring in late December, when an appeals court ruled the 30-year-old institution unconstitutional.
That ruling effectively gutted the Coastal Commission''s power to enforce the 1972 voter-approved California Coastal Act, which controls development along California''s 1,100-mile coastline.
"In a worst-case scenario, it could bring about the decommissioning of the commission," says Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, who has served on the state board for six years. "And in the world of coastal protection, that would be devastating."
This week, the 12-member commission-notably absent of any hobbits, elves or trolls-is expected to fight back and appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
"Clearly, this was an effort to destroy the Coastal Commission," Douglas says. "It wasn''t done by good-government folk; it was done by people who want to see the commission destroyed.
"It''s a huge crisis because it does create tremendous ambiguity and a cloud over the commission and its decisions-its past decisions, its present decisions and its future decisions."
What happens in the meantime is anyone''s guess.
Commissioners and environmentalists agree that the most immediate threat comes from the federal government, not local cities that want to build hotels and golf courses on the dunes. The Bush Administration wants to drill for oil off the California coast; the Coastal Commission won''t grant the necessary permits. Potter says the Bush administration may activate three dozen oil-drilling leases if the commission can''t deny them.
Douglas has recommended that the commission appeal the court''s decision. Once an appeal is filed, the lower court''s decision will be placed on hold.
"And this decision basically becomes moot," Douglas says. "So for the foreseeable future, the commission will continue to conduct the public''s business as usual."
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by the Marine Forests Society, a group that wanted to use old tires and plastic jugs to create an artificial reef off Newport Beach. The suit was also backed by the building industry.
"We had fishermen, surfers, environmentalists coming to us and saying ''You''ve got to stop this,''" Potter says. "It was a bunch of tires thrown together with rope and [the Marine Forests Society] said kelp is going to grow in it. It was nothing more than a glorified dumping project.
"It operates under the ''blind squirrel'' law," Potter continued, referring to the idea that sooner or later even a blind squirrel will find a nut. "And this was nutty. But the judge said, ''I''m going to look at the structure of the Coastal Commission."
On Dec. 30, a three-judge panel in Sacramento said the state Legislature holds too much control over the commission-which is part of the executive branch of state government-because it appoints eight of its members and can fire them at will.
Later in the week, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton asked Governor Gray Davis to call a special session of the Legislature to address the court''s ruling and find a legislative fix.
Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson has said that she will introduce a bill to set fixed terms for commissioners as soon as Davis calls a special session. Davis has said it is unlikely that he will call such a session before Jan. 21.
Potter says he may advocate for fixed terms with strict criteria for removal.
"It''s a very easy fix," says U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, who served on the regional commission in the early 1970s before the Legislature created a permanent state commission in 1976. "The Legislature just has to go in there and create terms for commissioners."
One possible solution to give commissioners more independence includes lengthening the terms from two years to four years and eliminating the Legisla-ture''s ability to fire appointees at will.
According to Douglas and others, this firing-authority is what concerned the court the most.
"Oh absolutely the Legislature influences appointees," says LandWatch''s Gary Patton, who, as a Santa Cruz County Supervisor, served on the regional commission alongside Sam Farr.
"Literally a commissioner who had been appointed by a Senator was sitting in the room, the commission would recess for lunch and the commissioner would receive a telegram. The commissioner would be pulled before a particular agenda item came up.
"[Former Assembly Speaker] Willie Brown was known for substituting people, [Former Senate President Pro Tem] David Roberti did on occasion. So it is hoped by many that this problem can be cured by simply making the appointments permanent."
Potter, however, says Legislative power doesn''t play a role in commissioners'' votes.
"My mother had a hard time influencing me, let alone some stranger from Sacramento," says Potter, who was first appointed in 1997 by then-Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, and re-appointed most recently by Speaker Herb Wesson. "In all honestly, in the six years I''ve served, nobody has every called me up and told me what to do."
Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who chaired the Coastal Commission in ''97 under the Wilson Administration, says otherwise.
"Whomever you''re appointed by, they''ll get to you one way or another," Calcagno says. "Sure you can vote against it, but you will only do it so many times."
Under Calcagno''s chairmanship, Wilson''s people wanted to get rid of Douglas, because the Republican Administration didn''t like Douglas''s pro-environment agenda. "Word from the top was to get rid of Peter Douglas," Calcagno remembers. Calcagno wouldn''t vote to axe Douglas. He didn''t loose his seat, however.
Potter says that proves the commission''s independence.
Potter is confident the commission will survive.
"About 70 percent of the voting public lives within two-hours of the coastal zone," Potter says, "And those front-row seats, the Malibu mansions and golf courses, only the wealthy can afford. I don''t think the rest of the state is going to sit back and give up public access to the beach. Twenty-seven years of work-I don''t see it getting thrown out. I think the rest of the state would be in an uproar."