Federal commissioners get earful on ocean policy


    Malibu citizens are not happy.

    From the publisher/Arnold G. York

    Last week the U. S. Commission on Ocean Policy came to San Pedro as part of a series of national meetings to hear, explore and examine the federal government’s role in the oversight of the management of the coastal zone.

    Typically, these meetings are low-key, almost academic affairs, but this meeting was different, with some federal commissioners getting an earful from citizens of Malibu who are very upset with the California Coastal Commission.

    The official, more diplomatic Malibu position was presented by Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Jennings, but other speakers, including Planning Commissioner Ted Vaill, Dr. Jeff Harris of Malibu Citizen’s for Local Coastal Planning, Peggy Ann Buckley and Ruth Gerson for the Mountain Recreation people, delivered the real message.

    The message was that the California Coastal Commission, despite lip service to the contrary, was on a campaign to cut out Malibu local government and, ultimately, all local governments from the planning process along the California coast. The Coastal Commission is assuming powers that are leading to open warfare between it and local governments and citizens, which many felt would be counterproductive to protecting the coast.

    Exhibit A, according to Vaill, was AB 988, which turned over to the Coastal Commission the power to decide Malibu’s land use, a power that has always been the province of local governments.

    The federal commissioners were told the proposed Malibu Local Coastal Plan (LCP) would, among other things, virtually eliminate horse ownership in Malibu or in surrounding hills, eliminate agriculture in the coastal zone, require the removal of non-native vegetation and trees, some of which are decades old, and mandate that they be replaced with native species. Additionally, they heard about the battle over the Coastal Commission’s designation of most of Malibu as an environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), and some of the legal questions raised as to whether or not the Coastal Commission had the legal right to create ESHA maps without first taking them to the Legislature for approval.

    Observers said this seemed to be of particular interest to Defense Department representatives, particular the U.S. Navy, which, over the years, has been in a running battle with the Coastal Commission over the Navy and Marine Corps’ use of the coast for national defense and amphibious training.

    The timing of the conference might have come at a particularly poor time for the California Coastal Commission, and, perhaps, added some credibility to the Malibu attack, because earlier in the week the commission had suffered a major chastisement from the governor, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

    Apparently, the Coastal Commission, in its last meeting in Santa Barbara with only seven of its 12 members voting, had decided 6-1 to reject the City of San Diego’s request for another five-year waiver of the federal Clean Water Act, unless it agreed to some conditions required by the Coastal Commission.

    There was an immediate political explosion. The city of San Diego accused the Coastal Commission of overstepping its authority in rejecting the city’s bid, since there were already a number of state and federal agencies that regulated this area. Apparently, the governor agreed.

    In a highly unusual action, California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols and California Environmental Protection Secretary Winston Hickox sent a letter (which the L.A. Times described as “strongly worded”) to Coastal Commission members advising them that their action was “clearly beyond the scope of the commission’s authority and without legal basis,” and further suggested they reconsider their decision at their next meeting.

    Typically, these kinds of hand slappings are delivered informally, via telephone. That the governor decided to pursue such a public route has left some observers wondering what this might foretell about the governor’s relationship with the Coastal Commission in the future.

    The significance of the issue is if the Coastal Commission could set conditions and make its own interpretations of the Clean Water Act, it might be given the power to dictate that cities or counties spend vast sums of money (running into the millions or multiple-millions) to upgrade their treatment plants to the commission’s rather pristine standards.

    Malibu is not alone in its turf battles with the California Coastal Commission. The commission has been pursuing a very aggressive route to protect the California coast, claiming jurisdictions that run as far as 16 miles inland and 100 miles out to sea, and this has caused collisions with other federal, state and local agencies that regulate in the same geographic area.