Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Hard choices, strong stands to protect coast

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Steve Blank made enough money from Silicon Valley startups that he could retire at 45, buy 660 acres south of Half Moon Bay and build a mansion above one of California's most pristine beaches.

He's also an environmentalist who until recently was one of 12 California Coastal Commission members and is struck by what hasn't happened to California's coast: It hasn't become the Jersey Shore.

That's because of what he proudly calls the uncompromising and unreasonable stands taken by the Coastal Commission.

Developers and property rights advocates denounce the commission, believing landowners should be able to do as they please with their precious slices of California. But over the decades, the commission has resisted becoming a captive of the businesses it regulates and the lobbyists who represent them.

Blank had commission stories to tell in 2007 when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him. He had wanted to build his mansion on a bluff directly above Año Nuevo State Park, where elephant seals sun themselves, feast, mate and molt.

He found himself playing a game of "regulatory Twister" with the commission, winning approval only after spending an additional $3 million and agreeing to build his spread well back from the bluff, out of sight from the highway below.

Rather than becoming embittered, Blank became a believer. California, he said, has been conducting a grand experiment. By imposing strict coastal zoning and sticking to it, California has "preserved a huge economic engine."

However, Blank issued a warning two weeks ago when he resigned from the commission, first in a speech to the California League of Conservation Voters and later to me.

"You don't want lobbyists on the commission. You don't want commissioners who hate the commission. You don't want environmentalists who check out," he said – all of which he worries is happening.

"If you make a mistake on an insurance regulation or an air quality regulation, you can change that. Once you bulldoze a wetland, it's gone," Blank said.

Clearly, the commission is in a transition. Peter Douglas, who wrote the 1972 initiative that created the commission and was its director for 25 years, died last year. Eight members of the 12-seat commission have been appointed since 2011.

Gov. Jerry Brown, not a fan of the commission, has a vacancy to fill, as do Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and the Senate Rules Committee chaired by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

In recent weeks, environmentalists have been campaigning for the reappointment of Commission Chairwoman Mary K. Shallenberger, first named by the Senate in 2004 and the only commissioner with any longevity.

On Tuesday, Steinberg told me he will recommend that Shallenberger be reappointed when the Rules Committee meets today, noting she is committed to the coast and is the one commissioner who has experience and institutional memory.

Steinberg called the commission one of "the pre-eminent land use agencies in the state and nation." But the commission also is insular, cliquish and given to internal feuds.

"They are full of drama," Steinberg said. That needs to end. The commission also "needs to work on better customer service, especially with people who own one parcel or one business on the coast," he said.

Blank, widely regarded as a Silicon Valley leader, is the son of a father who escaped Poland before the Holocaust and a mother who fled Russia. He grew up in an apartment in Queens, joined the Air Force where he learned electronics, and settled in the Silicon Valley in 1978. Eight startups later, he was wealthy beyond his dreams.

"You have a couple choices. Do you keep it all, or do you realize how lucky you are, and pay it forward," he said, making clear his choice.

He resigned from the commission to spend more time teaching. Although he never completed college, he teaches entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and is expanding his offerings at the request of the National Science Foundation.

Blank talks about the "tragedy of the commons," a reference to a time in England when space was set aside for the common good. If shepherds allowed their flocks to overgraze, the common space would cease to be of use. So it is with the coast, which is finite.

There always will be coastal development. But if voters hadn't taken matters into their own hands 40 years ago, and if the California Coastal Commission had become malleable, much more of the 1,100 miles of coastline would have become marred by condos, fancy resorts and perhaps oil derricks.

Rich people still can own beachfront homes, but they cannot stop the rest of us from using beaches, commons that belong to us all. In a state where the population has nearly doubled since 1972, you and I still can spend at the day at the ocean. That's worth preserving.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.