From the Publisher / Arnold G. York

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Fresh blood needed on Coastal Commission

For the California Coastal Commission and for the citizens who own land along the California coast that is under the commission’s authority, which is sometimes as much as five miles inland, 2011 could be a year of change.

There are 12 Coastal commissioners who, generally speaking, are the final arbiters of what happens along the state’s coast, whether you are an individual, a corporation, a city, a county or a special district. What makes this year different is that eight of the 12 commissioners are up for appointment. The governor’s four appointments serve at his pleasure and have no set term. Gov. Jerry Brown could replace all four of Schwarzenegger’s appointments whenever he is ready. Two Senate Rules Committee appointments expire on May 20, and the new pro tem, Darryl Steinberg, gets to make the new appointments. Two of the four Assembly appointments expire on May 20 as well, and new Speaker John Perez gets to make those assignations.

With this many seats opening up, the lobbying has been fierce and the accusations flying. Once again former Sen. John Burton, who recently publicly took Commissioner Sara Wan to task for her snatching of the commission chair, responded to accusations that he was becoming a developers’ man by defending his environmental record, and clearly indicated that there are many environmentalists along the coast who are qualified to sit on the commission; the clear implication being that the small group of commissioners who presently control the Coastal Commission are not indispensable for the protection of the coast.

The issue involved is more than just conflicting personalities or even conflicting environmental agendas. The issue is, who gets to control local land use? Should it be the localities where the land is located, or a state agency (i.e. the Coastal Commission, which throughout the years has added to its power of control frequently at the expense of local governments and individuals)? We appear to be entering a new era where the governor has indicated that many of the things the state does are going to be pushed down to local governments. But, in reality, that’s never going to happen as long as there are super agencies such as the Coastal Commission that have no intention of letting go of any part of its control.

A sample case in point is the battle brewing this week as the Coastal Commission meets to decide whether David Evans (also known as The Edge from the rock band U2 band) and several of his friends and associates, who all own separate legal parcels in Malibu, will receive coastal permits to build homes. The developments have been in the process for several years and modified several times at Coastal staff’s suggestion. This time the staff (which generally means Executive Director Peter Douglas, the 25-year plus major domo of the Coastal Commission) recommended the project be denied, and reasons for the denial are classic Peter Douglas. For one thing, the staff is recommending the permits be denied because of potential visual impacts. Translated into English that means you can see the houses from some road and therefore the passersby view is interrupted and therefore there should be no houses built. That apparently leaves as an alternative of an underground house or an earth-covered Navajo hogan, which is precisely the type of limitation that drives people crazy.

Another new twist is that Commission staff has said all five separately owned legal lots, which each have building rights under the Local Coastal Plan, should actually be treated as one large parcel because there is a “unity of ownership,” which in coastal speak means that since the five owners have “close familial, business or social relationships,” coastal staff believes there is a plan, a plot, a cabal, a conspiracy or whatever. By their proposed definition, if a father and son were to purchase adjoining legal lots the Coastal Commission might decide the two adjacent lots should be treated as one because of the familial relationship.

It will be interesting to see what the commission will do when it hears the application this week. All the commissioners know the heat is on and everyone is watching.

There isn’t any question that the coast needs protecting, but do we really need a commission that is constantly in everyone’s face? The State Coastal Act attempted a careful balance between coastal protection and local control. Historically, the commission has enforced the portion of the act they like, which is coastal protection, and ignored the portion they don’t, which is local control.

It’s time for the appointing authorities to try and restore balance by installing some new people to the commission so there is a broader point of view on the agency’s board. The tension that a more varied commission will provide would be good because it would act as a check and balance against excess by one side or the other.