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Coastal Commission overhaul (San Francisco Chronicle) January 6, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

The court decision that found the California Coastal Commission in violation of the state Constitution sounded a lot like giving one of the FBI’s most-wanted criminals a speeding ticket.

The good news is that a violator has been caught and charged.

The bad news is that the commission will probably get off with a warning and be back on the road as if nothing had happened.

What is needed is a major overhaul of one of the most powerful and arbitrary government agencies in California. If the Legislature is worth its salt, it will not just implement a quick legislative fix but will use the decision as an opportunity for review and reform.

The road the Coastal Commission travels is paved with good intentions.

Created in 1976, it was charged with overseeing local government plans to regulate one of the state’s most valuable resources: its 1,100-mile coastline.

Unable to control its own appetite for empire-building, however, the commission has developed a well-deserved reputation for micromanaging local government and for serving as judge, jury and executioner of the landowners who appear before it.

Finally, a Superior Court judge, whose ruling was affirmed last week by a three-judge Court of Appeal, said, “Enough!” The judges unanimously agreed that by both creating the laws under which the commission operates and by appointing — and retaining the right to fire — eight of the 12 commissioners, the Legislative was usurping power that belongs to the governor.

Unless the state Supreme Court overturns the decision, or the Legislature gives up some of its appointment powers, the Coastal Commission will forfeit its ability to issue orders. I say let’s give it a try!

The Coastal Commission was created to develop policies under which local governments would draft their own coastal plans. In the meantime, the state commission would review landowner’s applications to build or rebuild within the coastal zone. Some 25 years later, the Coastal Commission has not fully turned over the right of review to local governments and is micromanaging the lengths of driveways and the paving of parking spaces.

Real reform would not just alter the Legislature’s ability to make and terminate appointments, but would also limit the commission’s power. The Coastal Commission should turn permitting over to local government, say in five years. Its right to appeal decisions by cities and counties should also be limited. The commission in effect browbeats local governments by retaining the right to appeal decisions it doesn’t like. In Malibu (Los Angeles County), the Legislature even allowed the Coastal Commission to write the local development plan.

Finally, there should be some review of the commission’s decisions. It often makes arbitrary rulings that cannot be appealed. Ask the beach club that could not add parking because the commission did not like its membership policies. Or the university that was told to give up half its property as open space in order to expand its sewage plant. Or the church retreat center that cannot pave 17 parking spaces because butterflies a football field away might decide to relocate.

Protecting our environment does not require sacrificing constitutional principles or living with an arbitrary government agency. The longtime director of the Coastal Commission says this court decision is a recipe for chaos. I say it is an invitation to reform. Let’s hope the Legislature RSVP’s “yes.”

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

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