Legislators consider bill expanding Coastal Commission power

Photo by Paul Fisher

California legislators could pass a controversial bill this week granting the California Coastal Commission (CCC) the ability to levy direct fines against landowners along California’s expansive coastline. 

Coastal Commission officials say bill AB 976 is needed in order to more efficiently enforce the Coastal Act. Critics of the bill, however, say it could put middle-class homeowners at a disadvantage if they want to challenge the Commission’s findings but cannot afford the legal fees to both wage a lawsuit against the agency, which monitors and regulates development along 1,100 miles of California coastline, while facing escalating fines. 

“[With the bill] the CCC can assess $1,250 per day, which means that the fines will exceed the value of the property quickly,” said Paul Beard, a land rights attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation who often represents homeowners against the Coastal Commission. “People will go bankrupt.” 

Under current law, the Coastal Commission must first issue a “cease-and-desist” order when a violation is identified. If the order goes ignored, the Commission has the option of pursuing enforcement against the alleged violator through county superior courts. 

Backers of the bill say it is a necessity, citing more than 1,900 cases of alleged Coastal Act violations that have not been enforced because the agency lacks staffing and resources. 

Sarah Christie, the legislative director for the CCC, told The Malibu Times earlier this year the bill would empower the CCC with an enforcement tactic already utilized by “virtually every state regulatory agency and local government in California, including Malibu.” 

“It is a standard enforcement tool that serves as an effective deterrent against violating the law, and facilitates resolution of existing violations,” Christie said. 

Beard balked at the argument, saying the CCC’s enforcement jurisdiction is too broad. 

“Many, if not most, other agencies regulate a discrete industry. The CCC regulates all activities that constitute development within the Coastal zone,” he said. 

The State Assembly passed the bill in May on a 42-32 vote and it has since been working its way to the Senate floor. The state senate is in session until Friday, after which it goes on hiatus. Legislators could either pass the bill or choose to delay the vote until a later session. 

Rusty Areias, a former Coastal Commission chair who now works as a lobbyist in Sacramento, said he expected the bill to pass but that it could be “close.” 

“There are probably Republican senators that are concerned they [Coastal] would overstep their boundaries and abuse that new authority,” Areias said. “Then other legislators are going to be concerned that the Coastal Commission doesn’t have the tools to carry out their job. It just depends where they come from. If you live on the coast, you’re probably going to be more supportive of the Coastal Commission. If you live inland, you’re probably less supportive of the commission. 

“My guess is it will pass the senate and it will end up on the governor’s desk and Jerry [Brown] will have to make a decision.” 

One source with knowledge of the legislature said that California governors have historically fought with the commission, and never given them the resources and the budget to fully enforce. The source expected Gov. Brown to veto the bill if it passes the senate.