Filmmaker says lawsuit against Coastal Commission may save Malibu

Rodolphe Streichenberger

A Malibu resident makes a documentary about one man’s fight against the Coastal Commission, declaring it unconstitutional, which started over a reef made out of tires.

By Heidi Manteuffel/Special to The Malibu Times

“People in Malibu need to be aware of the man whose lawsuit against the Coastal Commission may actually save them in the end.”

Film creator and Malibu resident Wade Major made this foretelling comment about researcher Rodolphe Streichenberger’s long struggle against the California Coastal Commission. Major covers Streichenberger’s conflict with the Coastal Commission, along with his research, in a documentary called “Sea Servant.”

A senior film critic for the magazine, L.A. City Beat, Wade Major originally created the six-minute documentary on Streichenberger’s conflict to be showcased as a part of eight documentaries in the Silverlake Film Festival, Veritas Project Volume III. Major said he believes the documentary could be a way to unite the residents of Malibu in their own private battles against the Coastal Commission.

The film covers the struggle of the French researcher, president and founder of the Marine Forest Society in Newport Beach, whose present case against the Coastal Commission has gone all the way to the state Supreme Court. Streichenberger filed his lawsuit in 2000 after the Coastal Commission had demanded he remove an artificial reef that Streichenberger had built out of tires off the coast of Newport without approval from the commission. Streichenberger claims in his suit the state agency is unconstitutional in how it’s members are appointed. The 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed in a decision in 2002, stating the agency violates the separation of powers doctrine because two-thirds of its members are appointed by the Legislature and can be dismissed “at will.” The decision said the appointment and removal responsibilities give the legislative branch too much control over a commission that is part of the executive branch of government.

The decision of whether the Coastal Commission is unconstitutional could alter its future power over every coastal city in California.

During the beginning years of Streichenberger’s experiment with artificial reefs, he said the Coastal Commission raised no questions. However, Streichenberger said he found that when his experiment started to become successful in 1993, and the Coastal Commission sensed he was near completion, it then started to intervene. He said the Coastal Commission asked him to file for a permit, and the stream of obstructions began.

In 2000, Streichenberger went to court in Newport to fight the commission. The case was finally appealed to the Supreme Court and is waiting for a decision.

The film, Major said, covers Streichenberger’s philosophy about planting the sea, and approaching the ocean as an untapped resource. “It’s like turning the desert into fertile farmland,” he said. Major believes Streichenberger’s idea of reef restoration on sandy bottoms is ideal for impoverished countries such as Ethiopia, which have little decent farmland but the perfect opportunity to do farming in the ocean.

Major said, “They never think about the ocean [civil planning operations] and Rodolphe did, and that is what makes him an extraordinary person.”

The documentary features the researcher’s fight against the commission, as well as focuses on his various techniques, specifically his use of tire reefs. Many people are first appalled to discover old tires are being placed into the ocean, but it is, in fact, an object fish strongly respond to, Streichenberger argues. “It’s been known since ancient times that people would use trees, straws, or rocks as artificial reefs because they knew the fish were attracted to it by instinct,” he explained. “It is what is called the ‘wreck’ phenomenon. They know this is a good place to lay their eggs, and hide themselves.”

The Marine Forest Society’s reefs have given home to various forms of sea life including mussels, sea bass and more than 40 species of seaweed, Streichenberger said.

Streichenberger said he believes the Supreme Court will agree in his favor. Former Gov. Gray Davis had already been obliged by the decision of the Court of Appeals to amend the law, and let the commission get by with a last-minute loophole rewrite. He said he believes this time a mandate from the court will be upheld by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Charter Cable is airing “Sea Servant” for two weeks on Saturdays and Sundays at 12:45 p.m., Mondays and Fridays at 10:45 a.m. and 10:45 p.m., and Wednesdays at 10:45 p.m.