Mayor says new ‘seawall’ bill would be ‘devastating’

A new bill that would help manage the California coastline, including restoration and protection of the coast by regulating and, in some cases, eliminating development, stirs a new fight between environmentalists and homeowners.

By Anthony York/Special to The Malibu Times

A bill moving through the Legislature has become the latest battleground in the ongoing war between Malibu homeowners and environmental activists.

Homeowners fear the bill AB 947, authored by Santa Barbara Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson, will limit their ability to repair damaged seawalls, potentially putting their beachfront homes at risk.

Supporters of the bill say it is an overdue attempt to bring some comprehensive planning to the efforts to protect California’s 1,100 miles of coastline.

Although language in the bill is still likely to be tinkered with as it moves through the legislative process, Malibu has gone on record in opposition.

In a letter to Jackson’s office, Mayor Ken Kearsley wrote, “While we commend your efforts to create a comprehensive ocean resources planning and management program, we are greatly concerned about the potential impacts of your bill on the ability of homeowners in Malibu to protect their residences from storm damage.”

Kearsley’s letter went on to say that the impact of the bill on coastal homeowners would be “devastating.”

The bill is supported by a familiar coalition of environmental groups including the Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club, and the Planning and Conservation League (PCL).

Tim McCrae, who monitors coastal issues for the PCL, says groups opposing the bill are using scare tactics to mobilize their forces.

McCrae says the bill’s opponents are scaring people into believing they would not be allowed to fix existing seawalls. Malibu’s lobbyist, Susan McCabe, says the Coastal Commission has intentionally asked for vague language on that issue so the commission can assume the power to interpret a nebulous law.

“I do not believe that the bill would make current landowners have to remove seawalls,” McCrae said. “The language of the bill as I read it simply says seawalls should be a policy of last resort. If the Realtors are worried that this will cause there to be removal of current seawalls, I think that particular concern is not justified. I don’t believe this would undermine any attempt for protecting current structures.”

AB 947 seeks to implement recommendations that grew out of a study by the state Resources Agency. The agency report recommends amending the California Coastal Act, placing new restrictions on the construction of seawalls. One approach discussed in the report is to grandfather in existing “hard protection devices”-read: seawalls-while prohibiting approval of new seawalls.

The agency’s report cites the “need to protect public health and safety, marine life and associated habitats, and recreational uses and facilities [while] providing full consideration of the rights of public and private property owners along the coast.”

Sources in Jackson’s office insist there is no “anti-seawall agenda” in the bill, and that every consideration will be given to protecting private homes. At the same time, the Legislature and the governor’s office hope to limit, if not prevent, the construction of future seawalls and curb development along the California coast.

Some in Sacramento say they’d like to see a final bill that addresses concerns of both environmentalists and homeowners. But they say animosity between the two sides is so deep that there is no active dialogue between the two sides at this stage.

McCabe says, from the city’s perspective, any bill that would place a future ban on seawalls is a nonstarter. “The city would never go for that,” she said. “It’s so arbitrary. What about exceptions for things that really need it?”

McCabe says such a law would fail to take future emergencies into account.

“Does that mean you don’t let Caltrans protect PCH if they have to at some point?”

Advocates and opponents are just beginning to mobilize as the fight over the bill heats up. In fact, the Resources Agency itself is still not officially in favor of the bill, waiting for the end of the public comment period on the report. But sources close to Jackson say this official ambivalence is a technicality, and that Jackson will only proceed with the bill when her office and the Resources Agency can agree on final wording. McCabe says the agency’s position is a sign that Gov. Davis wants the bill changed before it goes any further.

The bill is continuing to wind through the legislative process, with a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee set for May 7, though many people on both sides of the fight say there is a good chance the bill will be held until next year as new amendments are considered.

But those amendments are unlikely to remove any opposition to the bill. Opponents of the Jackson bill say it is not needed, that the Coastal Commission already has the power to veto seawalls that are deemed unnecessary. New homes or structures built along the coast must be designed to avoid needing a seawall. But environmentalists say the commission is largely powerless to stop seawall projects if an existing structure is in danger, and they have repeatedly turned to the Legislature to try to broaden the commission’s power.

Last year, Assemblymember Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, sponsored a bill that would have given the California Coastal Commission more power to veto new seawalls. That bill ultimately died in the Senate, after opposition by a coalition of coastal cities and business groups, many of which are watching the evolution of AB 947 closely. But Jackson’s office is optimistic that some sort of compromise can be struck over AB 947 that will both protect existing homes and curb future coastal development.

“The Wiggins bill was a knock down, drag out [fight],” said a Sacramento source. “That’s not what this bill is. It’s just not possible that the governor is going to sign a bill to ban seawalls. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Anthony York is a former editor of the California Journal and National Correspondent for Salon.com.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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