In the 30 years since its creation, the California Coastal Commission has played an important role in protecting the coast, limiting offshore oil and gas exploration, enforcing public access to ocean beaches, and restricting coastal development. But in the process it has been contentious, arbitrary, arrogant, corrupt, and often ignored property rights.
The California Appeals Court recently declared the commission unconstitutional due to its exposure to political influence. As a cosmetic fix to the court’s decision, Gov. Gray Davis signed a hurried bill creating four-year fixed terms for legislative appointees to the commission.
That isn’t a solution. Lawsuits will continue and more importantly, the commission is still in desperate need of a complete overhaul.
A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Coastal Commission described its demands for land in exchange for permits as an out-and-out plan of extortion. In 1992, former Commissioner Mark Nathanson was convicted for soliciting bribes in exchange for coastal building permits. And just last October, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gov. Davis’ re-election campaign received $8.3 million from donors with business before the Coastal Commission, most of whom got their permits approved shortly thereafter.
The latest case against the commission arises over a marine environmentalist group’s plan to create kelp beds on the sandy ocean bottom using durable, recycled materials. Rodolphe Streichenberger, a French researcher, developed the plan with the help of the late Wheeler North, a CalTech marine biologist who specialized in replenishing depleted kelp forests.
Kelp forests are havens of biodiversity, great for countless species and a huge benefit to the overall health of our oceans. They are also in serious decline, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, especially in Southern California.
Recognizing the vast environmental benefits of kelp forests, Newport Beach officials approved the Marine Forest reef project and the site was leased from the Department of Fish and Game. Despite Newport’s enthusiasm, the Coastal Commission deemed the reef unpermitted development, and refused to issue a retroactive permit. Detractors claimed it was simply an excuse for ocean dumping but the marine life is there for all to see (although by mandate there is now no maintenance of the reef), and a simple dumping plan would hardly merit the designs of a Cal-Tech biologist.
As with everything it does, the commission’s problem with the Marine Forest project has more to do with jurisdiction and procedure than environmental effects. There are scientific, ecological questions that need to be asked, such as how reefs affect species composition, how durable the reefs are, and how they affect water quality, but these questions need to be asked in a less politically charged environment.
Peter Douglas, the Coastal Commission’s most prominent employee, recently wrote, “The coast is never finally saved. It is always being saved.”
He is right, but only because conservation and politics remain inextricably intertwined. The Nature Conservancy learned this long ago, which is why it originally turned to private conservation and respect for property rights to improve environmental quality.
Other states such as Alabama have experimented with privately built artificial reefs, and as a result, Alabama has seen a dramatic increase in offshore productivity. The Coastal Commission, on the other hand, has squashed any private innovators that have come its way.
The first target of the newly created commission in the early 1970s was the Sea Ranch, a visionary private development in northern Sonoma complete with its own set of even by today’s standards onerous building restrictions aimed at environmental sensitivity. By the time the commission was through with them, however, they could no longer afford those covenants and their vision was compromised.
If Gov. Davis and the Legislature are serious about improving the Coastal Commission, all appointments should be made by the governor and be subject to review by the Legislature. Performance measures, such as coastal acreage developed and marine pollutants reduced, should be adopted so that the commission’s mission is clear, and its predilection for granting favors to the well-connected limited.
Above all, entrepreneurs should be encouraged rather than discouraged from finding innovative solutions to environmental problems. With a restructured Coastal Commission, the state would reap the numerous benefits of a patchwork of biodiversity kelp forests and other environmentally sensitive developments that would actually improve the current condition of our coast.
Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation