Re: Calif. Supreme Court to determine future of Coastal Commission

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Posted by on April 05, 2005 at 16:35:56:

In Reply to: Calif. Supreme Court to determine future of Coastal Commission posted by on April 04, 2005 at 21:08:18:

A state Supreme Court hearing Wednesday on the constitutionality of the agency that oversees growth along the California coastline could lead to a dramatic change in the way the 1,100-mile California coast is developed.

If the court rules the California Coastal Commission is unconstitutional because it has both executive and legislative powers, it could render the commission virtually powerless and halt all building projects along the coast in Ventura County and the rest of the state.

What nobody knows is if the court's ruling would affect the thousands of commission decisions that, over the past 30 years, have molded the coast into what it looks like today.

While opponents of the commission say it is an arrogant and totalitarian agency, advocates say the commission has kept the entire California coast from becoming a series of Malibu-type overbuilt beach towns where development runs slipshod over environmental and public access concerns. Commission officials said they have been attacked countless times before and, like the previous lawsuits, will survive this one.

But both sides agree there could be enormous ramifications if the commission is altered. It could call into question hundreds of decisions that people have relied upon for direction and guidance, said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, who served on the commission for eight years.

"It would introduce an element of chaos that need not be present," he said.

The Ventura County coastline is protected by a coastal plan that dictates development, but as many as one-third of cities and counties along the the California coast do not have such plans. If the commission were denuded, the Legislature would be responsible for figuring out what powers a new commission would have. Under the Coastal Act, passed by voter initiative in 1972, some sort of a commission is required.

Recently in Ventura County, the commission has had a hand in approving a controversial boating center in Channel Islands Harbor, as well as establishing a protected wetlands near Ormond Beach.

Wednesday's case started in 1999 when the commission rejected a bid by the Marine Forest Society to build an artificial reef of tires and pipes off the Newport Beach pier. The society sued the commission, saying it was unconstitutional because legislative leaders were granted too much power over the commission.

The court of appeal ruled that the commission's structure is unconstitutional because leaders of the California Legislature appoint eight of the 12 commissioners and can remove them at will. The governor gets four at-will appointments. The appeals court said the composition vested too much power in the Legislature.

Former assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced a bill during an emergency session in 2003 that mandated commission members serve a finite four-year term. However, the courts will decide if that move will pass constitutional muster. A decision from Wednesday's hearing could take three months.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a pro-property rights group that fights for less government, has been fighting on behalf of the MFS.

"We would like to see a coastal commission that is more responsible to the people than what we have now," said James Burling, principal attorney with PLF.

He said his group would like to see local governments have more control over how they choose to develop the coast. Property owners have too few rights and the commission abuses its power, he said.

"We want the rights of property owners to be respected," he said.

However, legislative coordinator for the commission Sarah Christie said PLF merely wants the ability to develop the coast unchecked.

"They are part of the much larger and currently very successful neo-conservative agenda that wants to strangle the size of government to where it can be drowned in the bathtub," she said.

If local governments were to have say over their coastline, politicians would face too much pressure from developers to approve multimillion dollar projects that could bring tax dollars to the community, she said.

Paul Jenkin, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation, called the Coastal Commission a critical last line of defense.

"This case is the latest attack where development interests are trying to cut it off at the knees to forward their mission to develop the coast," he said.

Jenkin said local governments typically don't have the expertise in-house to fully understand the impact developments place on the coastal environment.

"Local government action often is politically motivated and the safety of the environment can become a lower priority," he said.

Nick Deitch, a principal with Ventura's Mainstreet Architects & Planners Inc., disagrees. He believes local agencies, with clear coastal plans, are capable of balancing infill projects with environmental concerns.

"The Coastal Commission has a massive responsibility - the entire coastline," he said. "They can't possibly understand the intricacies of local planning policies, issues and needs."

Deitch, whose firm has designed several projects that fall within the commission's authority, said problems often arise when that authority overlaps in a community, like Ventura, that has a housing shortage and its own ideas for how the coast should be developed.

The commission's "basic purpose is still appropriate," he said, "but their tools and planning methodology is outdated."

Even if the courts declare the commission unconstitutional, that doesn't mean the end of the powerful panel, said Bill Fulton, a Ventura councilman and nationally recognized urban planning expert.

Fulton said the law favors hotels over housing because officials believe that mainly the wealthy can afford homes along the coast. Hotels, on the other hand, open up the coast and beaches to more people from diverse backgrounds, Fulton said.

Should the Legislature hand over all commission appointments to the governor, that could change, Fulton said.

"Under this governor, you might wind up with a Coastal Commission more receptive to housing than hotels," Fulton said. "It's possible that a simple corrective law could get caught up in extremist politics on both sides."

Chris Stephens, director of the Ventura County's Planning Division, speculated that local coastal plans - blueprints for development approved by the Coastal Commission - would likely stay in place.

If a high court ruling tosses out the local coastal plans, it would be the equivalent of saying a city's general plan - a similar blueprint - is null and void, Stephens said.

"That would require an immediate moratorium (on development) until we could sort it out," Stephens said.

Even without the commission or the local coastal plans, builders would still be subject to a host of county planning rules and state environmental laws before they could build, Stephens said.

"Everything that goes to the Coastal Commission must fall within the rules of current county planning guidelines," Stephens said.

Oxnard Mayor Tom Holden said it's too early to speculate how a ruling would impact cities like Oxnard because there are questions on what, if any, adjustments the Coastal Commission will make.

Holden said he didn't know whether there would be delays in approving land-use and other issues that Oxnard has pending before the commission. However, he said it would be very difficult to undo any past decisions.

And, he asked the million-dollar question.

"What kind of structure do you replace it with?" Holden said.

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