Coastal Commission Coup Could Endanger Your Public Beaches

The Coastal Commission is why this seascape near Jenner doesn't have offshore oil rigs. | Photo: Don McCullough, some rights reserved

The weeks-long occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge seems to be winding down, but don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The forces in our society that want to privatize public land haven't given up. And a conflict taking shape in California promises to be more of a threat to public lands than the hapless occupiers in Oregon ever could be.

The privatizers in California differ in a few respects from the Bundy bunch. They're not disenfranchised ideologues drunk on their private misunderstandings of history. It would be hard to be less disenfranchised than these Californians, in fact. Members of the California Coastal Commission, appointed by the Executive Branch of the state government, don't need to break the law to work to deprive Californians of their public lands birthright.

"Some men rob you with a six-gun," Woody Guthrie wrote in his song Pretty Boy Floyd, "and some use a fountain pen." Unlike Bundy and his gang, members of the California Coastal Commission don't need to arm themselves to take our public beaches and estuaries away from us. They just need to sign documents. And the executive branch is looking the other way.

At issue this month is an attempt by the seated Commissioners to oust the Commission's Executive Director, Charles Lester, over what some Commissioners have said are issues of underperformance in Lester's job.

But environmental groups spanning the green spectrum from foundation-funded to grassroots aren't buying it. They claim the problem is that Lester has been too good at his job, protecting California's 1,100 miles of coastline from development projects that would harm wildlife, block public access, and essentially privatize some of the most potentially valuable real estate in the world.

Commission Chair Steve Kinsey asked Lester for his resignation in January. Lester opted not to go quietly. Instead, he asked the Commission to discuss his potential termination during a public hearing at the Commission's next monthly meeting, set for February 10-12 in Morro Bay. 

If anything, Lester has been somewhat friendlier to developers than was his late predecessor, the fiercely environmentalist Peter Douglas, whose tenacity in resisting the often short-sighted wishes of the agency's politically appointed Commissioners was the stuff of legend. Despite some minor differences, Lester, like Douglas before him, has been carrying out the express wishes of the state's voters in standing firm against rapacious developments. In 1972, those voters passed by a 55-45 percent margin the ballot initiative, Proposition 20, that established the Coastal Commission, chartered to manage development on the coast with environmental protection and public access at the top of its priorities. The then-temporary body was made permanent by an act of the Legislature four years later.

The 55-45 popular vote establishing the Coastal Commission may not seem like a landslide, until you consider the fact that opponents of the initiative outspent supporters by a factor of more than 100. At the time, the developers of the Sonoma County resort Sea Ranch planned to make more than 10 miles of the Sonoma Coast off-limits to the public, aside from those members of the public willing to shell out to stay at the tony resort. The vote in favor of Prop 20 was a resounding "No" to excluding the public from the Sonoma Coast, or any other part of California's ocean front.

To be clear, much of the development proposed for the California coast is slated for private land. The Coastal Commission's mandate includes much more than just protecting public access to the so-called "public trust" lands between the mean high and low tide lines, designated as our common property by the Coast Act of 1976. Any activity that could conceivably affect the ecosystems and scenic character of the coast, from The Edge's blufftop developments in Malibu to offshore oil rigs and (perhaps someday) wind turbines legally comes under the Coastal Commission's scrutiny.

And that's only fair, as coastal developers often irrevocably change the nature of the landscape surrounding their projects, with impacts ranging from loss of coastal bluff vernal pools to motor oil in runoff slicking up estuarine habitat. If not for the Coastal Commission, widely regarded as one of the strongest environmental protection government agencies in the country, there would be a whole lot more of those unintended consequences along the coast from San Diego to the Smith River.

In short, projects on private land can seriously damage or destroy public trust land. Sometimes that damage comes from environmental degradation; sometimes it comes when coastal property owners deny Californians their legally guaranteed access to those public trust lands. It's the first lesson of ecology: effects cross property lines, whether those effects are an arson fire set by ranchers or a private parking lot whose cars leak oil into a coastal lagoon.

Industry maintains that its unintended consequences are manageable with far less regulation. Industry wants that coastline. Industry didn't stop shelling out cash to get its way with that 100-1 electoral spending binge in 1972. Witness this passage from a recentletter to the Los Angeles Times by former Coastal Commissioner Linda Moulton-Patterson, who supports Charles Lester as Commission director:

Another former Commissioner, environmentalist Sara Wan, has been telling press that the attempted ouster of Lester is part of a campaign to make the Commission friendlier to developers. "We know they've been pushing in that direction for a while, and that's what this is all about," said Wan, "taking over control of the Commission and undermining its independence, and eventually turning the coast over to the development and energy industries."

It's easy to point and laugh at a group of would-be paramilitary types spouting mangled misapprehensions of constitutional law as they try to lock us out of land that is our common property. Fewer people ridicule the Newport Beach developers, Malibu celebs, and speculators who would have the Coastal Commission seal off the public from the coast, and develop the coastal bluffs and estuaries that make up the California littoral ecosystem.

But like the sagebrush rebels of whom the Malheur occupiers are just the most recent example, the coast developers are implacable opponents of public access and environmental protection.

That's why California needs a Coastal Commission that's willing to defend the coast just as stubbornly. Actual job performance issues with the Commission's Executive Director are one thing, and would obviously need to be addressed if they actually exist. But in a year when Commissioners have publicly apologized to developers for perceived delays in approving highly controversial projects, the choice to bring up alleged H.R. issues against Lester seems highly dubious.

The main Commissioners driving the attempt to oust Lester are gubernatorial appointees whose terms can be ended with a stroke of Jerry Brown's pen. To date, the governor has refused to comment one way or the other on Lester's future with the Commission. Jerry should take a hint from the events to the north: the FBI eventually did get around to doing something about the privatizers on the Malheur Refuge. California's governor should do likewise.