The 12-member California Coastal Commission is the primary enforcer of laws protecting the coast’s natural and scenic resources, but its effectiveness is limited because it lacks the power to levy fines and penalties.
It looked like that situation was about to change when the Assembly passed legislation in May granting the commission that authority and the Senate concurred. But when the bill was returned to the Assembly last week with some minor amendments, it was narrowly defeated after intense lobbying by coastal landowners, developers and other business interests. The Los Angeles Times said it was the third time since 2008 that the power to issues fines was denied the commission.
So, for now, the commission will have to settle for enforcing its rulings by negotiating with parties it finds in violation of the law or taking them to Superior Court via the state Attorney General’s Office. It’s an expensive and cumbersome process that contributes mightily to the commission’s backlog of around 1,900 enforcement cases and its perennial funding problems.
The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office noted in 2008 that the commission rarely pursues its cases in court for practical reasons and recommended it be empowered to assess fines and penalties, which would help stabilize its funding base and make it more effective. The Sacramento Bee says 20 other agencies have the authority.
Supporters of Assembly Bill 976 said its narrow defeat in the Assembly was a result of misrepresentation of the Senate amendments that caused confusion and allowed wavering lawmakers an excuse to vote against it. Republicans were fairly unified in their opposition, but moderate Democrats provided the difference in the vote.
The votes cast by state Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Marin) is a case in point. Levine initially voted for the bill, but abstained when the amended version returned from the Senate. He told the Marin Independent Journal that the new version made fines mandatory, would encourage litigation and, therefore, does no nothing to reduce the backlog. Coastal Commission vice chairman Steve Kinsey, who also is a Marin County supervisor, said Levine got it wrong. He said the bill did not require that fines be levied; it only gave the commission the authority to assess them.
The commission was created by voters in 1972 and made permanent by the 1976 Coastal Act (pdf). Although it is considered the bane of many seaside property owners—like Malibu residents who block beach access and companies that illegally dump debris—the commission is limited by its small staff of 135, who are responsible for 1,100 miles of coastline. Its inflation-adjusted budget is half what it was in 1980 when it had a staff of 212, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Around 29% of the commission’s backlog of enforcement cases involve blocked access to public beaches, 27% have to do with illegal road grading and building, 24% address unpermited development in wetlands and sensitive habitats, and 24% concern the removal of coastal vegetation without a permit. Case specifics add up to more than 100% because some cases involve multiple violations. Other violations include: water pollution (13%) and diking, filling and dredging (8%).