Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Leadership dispute rekindles coastline conflict

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California, overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California, overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Bay Area News Group

There’s a new skirmish in California’s perpetual – and perpetually hyperbolic – conflict over development along the state’s 1,000-mile-long coastline.

Environmental groups are in a dither over reports that a majority of the 12-member California Coastal Commission – reportedly led by Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees – may fire its low-key executive director, Charles Lester.

Lester’s departure would be, they imply, an open invitation for hordes of developers to swoop down, like the bestial Huns who threatened Rome in the fifth century, to rape and pillage the virginal coast. His backers want Brown to intervene, but he’s declared a hands-off attitude, saying it’s a matter for the commission to decide.

While his critics appear to fault his administrative abilities, Lester – who demanded Wednesday’s public hearing on his tenure – is mounting a stiff defense, saying in a statement attached to the meeting agenda, “I believe that my vision has been clear and incisive, and that my performance and accomplishments in the administration of the coastal program have been exceptionally strong.”

What will happen is uncertain, but even were Lester to be bounced, it’s unlikely that there would be a major shift in Coastal Commission policies. It’s just another in a four-decade-long string of kerfuffles, most far more serious.

The saga begins, ironically enough, during Brown’s first stint as governor and his 1976 signature on the California Coastal Act, implementing a ballot measure that voters had passed four years earlier.

The environmental groups that sponsored the measure portrayed it in very simplistic terms. Development of homes, resorts and other projects along the coast, they said, was shrinking public access to its beaches. “ ‘Where’s the beach?’ was their rallying slogan.

The legislation Brown signed was more expansive. It created the 12-member commission and empowered it to regulate development in a “coastal zone” that runs from the water’s edge to five miles inland or the ridgeline of coastal mountains, whichever is less.

For reasons known only to himself, Brown agreed to make just four appointments to the commission, leaving the other eight to legislative leaders. It was a huge flaw, because it essentially allowed political insiders to control a majority of the commission’s members.

It gave rise to a small cadre of well-connected lobbyists who could, with their implicit connections to legislative leaders, influence cases pending before the commission, whether they be large-scale housing developments or a Hollywood figure’s mansion remodeling.

An unintended, but still obvious, consequence of clamping development controls on hundreds of miles of coastal land was that it increased the value of property that either cleared the Coastal Commission’s regulatory process, or was exempted from it – thereby creating a motive to influence its decisions.

An illustration of that phenomenon emerged in northern San Diego County in the mid-1980s. A consulting firm asked local landowners to contribute money to a drive for legislation exempting 4,000 acres of land from the coastal zone, thereby making the property easier to sell or develop.

“Remember (the) benefit to your property would increase at least $10,000-$15,000 (per acre) should SB 1808 be successful,” the solicitation said.

The organizers estimated that getting the exemption would cost about $400,000 – lobbying fees and campaign contributions primarily – or $100 per acre, thus offering a return on the political investment of at least 100 to 1.

The effort collapsed, but it was not isolated. Virtually every session of the Legislature during the 1980s featured at least one bill to change the boundaries of the coastal zone, thus exempting certain properties from Coastal Commission regulation. One measure was carried by a state senator to exempt a cold storage plant that his family had just sold.

Eventually one coastal commissioner, Mark Nathanson, pleaded guilty to taking bribes – some of them from entertainment figures – to fix their issues pending before the commission. Nathanson had been appointed by Willie Brown, the long-serving speaker of the state Assembly. The case evolved from an undercover FBI investigation of influence-peddling in the Capitol that also snagged a number of other political figures.

Willie Brown has said he believes he was a target of the investigation, but no charges were lodged against him. It’s widely believed, however, that what Nathanson admitted doing was only the tip of a much bigger iceberg of insider dealing on coastal issues.

A decade after Nathanson’s 1993 sentencing (he got five years in federal prison), the two-thirds commission control by legislative appointees was set aside by a state appellate court, declaring it to be an unconstitutional usurpation of executive authority. It was repaired, after a fashion, by giving members fixed terms, but instances of meddling through legislative leaders persisted.

Insider dealing, however, was only half of the commission’s reputation during its first decades. The other face was that of a zealous protector of the coast that entangled those without professional lobbyists in coils of red tape and violated property rights. Critics made periodic efforts to dump Lester’s combative, long-serving predecessor, Peter Douglas.

Property owners often complained that commission staffers pressured them into ceding control of their land as a cost of getting development permits. In 1987, those complaints reached the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision (Nollan v. California Coastal Commission) that declared the practice to be illegal.

The Nollan family complained that the commission was compelling it to give an access easement along a beachfront lot in Ventura County in return for being allowed to replace a 505-square-foot bungalow with a 2,500-square-foot house.

The commission said the easement was to compensate for “blockage of the view of the ocean” but the court ruled 5-4 that it was, in effect, an illegal seizure of the property without compensation.

Nearly 30 years later – just a few weeks ago – the Nollan decision figured prominently in a state appellate court ruling that the Coastal Commission and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife had illegally seized some Del Norte County property by removing a flood-protection berm from a coastal subdivision.

Scarcely a month passes without some new controversy erupting. When the commission, for example, approved a five-house development on a Malibu mountain ridge for U2 guitarist The Edge (David Evans) recently, the Sierra Club sued.

Usually, however, the controversies go the other way, as opponents of projects large and small look to the commission for help, even on issues that would seem to have little connection to coastal protection.

A firm that wanted to build two desalination plants in Southern California – and had contracts for the water – has spent decades dealing with environmental critics whose underlying motive was blocking new water supplies because they believed more water would fuel more population growth and development away from the coast.

One plant in San Diego County finally gained permits and recently began production, but an identical plant in Orange County is still pending.

One of the more questionable instances of Coastal Commission activism involves SeaWorld San Diego and its orca shows.

Animal rights groups dislike having the orcas perform, and when SeaWorld proposed an expansion, it needed a Coastal Commission permit that gave its critics a new venue.

Ultimately, the commission granted the permit, but with the condition that SeaWorld stop its orca breeding program. The parent company is now suing.

Still another apparent case of Coastal Commission mission creep is its declaration of authority over a proposed refuse landfill in interior San Diego County.

The Gregory Canyon landfill, the commission reasons, is under its purview because it could affect the San Luis Rey River watershed, and the river flows to the sea.

By that reasoning, of course, any development on any watershed in California, even those hundreds of miles from the sea, could require Coastal Commission permits.

The commission would seem to have enough on its plate, including the fate of its executive director, without grabbing more authority. The extent of its reach may be settled by the courts, just as they have reined in other Coastal Commission activities they found to be egregious.