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Coastal Commission to review site


The proposed relocation site for the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center is one component of the Del Monte Forest Plan, which has been sent to the Coastal Commission for review.

From the Monterey County Herald
Serving Monterey County and the Salinas Valley

Monday, May 14, 2001

How the Coastal Commission operates


Try building anything along the coastline of the Monterey Peninsula and you'll soon learn who holds the power over development in the state.

The California Coastal Commission, which is charged with the responsibility of issuing permits for new buildings in the coastal zone, has survived criticism and lawsuits from environmentalists and developers alike since it was established in 1972.

But a recent court ruling that deems the commission unconstitutional appears to be the biggest threat yet to the powerful panel. And with many large projects on the Peninsula still requiring commission approval - from the Pebble Beach Co.'s plans for the Del Monte Forest to the proposed Ocean View Plaza in Monterey - the ruling has both environmentalists and developers speculating about how the commission will operate in the future.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Charles Kobayashi ruled last month that the commission violates the state Constitution's provisions on separation of powers because two-thirds of the commissioners are appointed by the state Legislature even though the commission is part of the executive branch. The lawyers who successfully challenged the commission's makeup argued that it essentially is a legislative body making decisions that should be left to the governor or his appointees.

Rather than disband the commission, however, the ruling sets off appeals that could take two years to resolve, according to Matt Rodriquez of the state Attorney General's Office, which represents the commission. In the meantime, the commission will continue to operate just as it has for more than two decades.

Rodriquez said his office plans to file an appeal in the next few weeks.

The lawsuit leading to Kobayashi's ruling was brought on behalf of a group that created an artificial reef off Newport Beach without commission approval.

The legal challenge focuses on the commission's makeup. Four members of the commission are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly, four are appointed by the Senate Rules committee and the governor appoints four voting members and three non-voting members.

That creates a system of checks and balances that has worked well, Executive Director Peter Douglas said last week while in Monterey for the commission's monthly meeting. The body moves its sessions up and down the coast each month.

Douglas said the judge's ruling was "very puzzling because the commission has been operating with the structure for nearly 30 years."

Other agencies in the state, including the San Francisco Bay Conservancy and Development Commission, have a similar makeup, he said.

The commission's vice chairman, Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, was appointed by then-Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa.

During their Monterey meeting last week, commissioners drafted a letter responding to the judge's ruling.

"The protection of California's coast is too important to be under the control of one official who may not have the best interest of the coast at heart," the letter says. "It is vital that California preserve a strong, independent and balanced Coastal Commission by retaining a proven, fair and effective appointment process."

But Sacramento attorney Jeff Yazel, whose law firm brought the suit, said the commission often overreaches its authority and abuses its power.

Yazel said the commission staff "really runs the show" and is more sympathetic to environmental groups than to developers.

In a telephone interview, Yazel said he wants to reform the commission, not shut it down.

He's pushing for all appointments to be made by the governor. And he wants the Coastal Commission to only have legislative power, with no authority to issue permits and determine what gets built or demolished.

But Carmel Valley land-use lawyer Alexander Henson said he thinks the commission will never be stripped of its permitting authority.

"The whole reason the Coastal Commission exists is because local governments were not sufficiently attuned to coastal protection and preservation," Henson said. "The only way to maintain oversight of the local government is to have a Coastal Commission with power to review permits."

Henson said he's never had a problem with the way the commission operates, but thinks concrete terms of office should be established for commissioners. All the commissioners are appointed to two-year terms but serve at the will of whichever body appoints them. Commissioners have been removed from office for not voting the way the appointing authority wanted.

Term limits on politicians who appoint commissioners cause a high turnover on the commission, said Chairwoman Sara Wan. She said it takes about a year and a half just to get familiar with the regulations.

Wan said she thinks the commission's tumultuous history - with members being yanked mid-meeting - is all in the past.

But Salinas land-use attorney Tony Lombardo said he thinks the commission's makeup puts the members under tremendous political pressure. Lombardo, who has successfully sued the commission to overturn a decision, also said there should be more avenues for appealing commission decisions.

"The way the system is set up, basically the little guy doesn't have a chance," Lombardo said.

It isn't just developers who have been critical of the Coastal Commission's actions. Attorney Mark Massara of the Sierra Club has said the commission is failing to preserve important wetland areas in the state.

"At least half of the commission has seriously strayed from any meaningful coastal protection ethic," Massara wrote in a newsletter. He specifically criticized the commission for approving plans for a Watsonville high school to be built along wetlands west of that city.

But in the aftermath of Kobayashi's ruling, Massara backtracked and said the Sierra Club will support the commission's legal battle to preserve the current system. He said the agency has been able to maintain a balance and that the suit represents hostility to coastal protection programs.

Wan, the chairwoman, said the Coastal Commission is needed now more than ever. For one thing, she said, it is the only authority that can regulate oil drilling in federal waters off the California coast.

She said many people don't realize the significance of the commission's work because some of its most important decisions involve stopping development.

"Our biggest victories," she said, "are what we don't see."


Amy Ettinger can be reached at 646-4494.


Copyright (c) 2001, The Monterey County Herald, 8 Ragsland Drive, Monterey CA. 93940  (831) 372-3311
A Knight Ridder Newspaper

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