CARLSBAD — Mayor Mary Casler, a smartly dressed, diminutive woman with expertly coiffed, snow-white hair, is known about town as a decidedly low-key politician, a mild-mannered and rather predictable person who chooses her words carefully when she speaks at all.
Approachable and pleasant, the mayor presides over council meetings with quiet dignity and discusses even the most controversial topics with the controlled calm of a museum docent. She is polite, proper, almost prim.
But there is one issue that strips Mary Casler of her smooth civic veneer and makes her blood boil: Carlsbad's decade-old feud with the California Coastal Commission over control of land in the city's coastal zone.
Ask Casler to characterize the commission's position on city officials' plans for the use of coastal land in Carlsbad and she uses words like "inflexible," "unfair" and "ridiculous"--strong language for the usually affable mayor.
"The Coastal Commission has been disrespectful of the rights of Carlsbad and property owners within the city," Casler said. "Our relationship with them has been nothing but one frustration after another."
Indeed, for nearly 10 years, Carlsbad and the commission have struggled to reach a compromise over the city's local coastal program--a set of land-use policies mandated under the state Coastal Act that, once approved by both parties, award local officials sole authority over development in the coastal area.
Regardless of who's to blame for the impasse, the relationship has been a stormy one. At perhaps its worst point, in 1982, Carlsbad officials refused to prepare their required coastal plan and the Legislature ordered the Coastal Commission to do the job for them.
That plan was certified by the commission but has been ignored by the city, forcing developers with projects in the coastal zone to continue to obtain the approval of both agencies before building.
The nut of their disagreement has been the preservation of agricultural land in a 6,400-acre area roughly bounded by Batiquitos Lagoon, Interstate 5, Tamarack Avenue and El Camino Real and excluding areas surrounding Agua Hedionda Lagoon and Palomar Airport.
Commission staff analysts, citing stipulations in the 1976 Coastal Act, say that much of the city's coastal acreage must be reserved for farming. Carlsbad officials, however, contend that agriculture is no longer profitable in the coastal area and argue that property owners in the affected zone--including the billionaire Hunt brothers of Texas--should be permitted to develop their land as they wish.
Tired of the standoff, the city recently came up with a strategy they believe will both satisfy the commission and allow developers to build subdivisions or other projects on what is now farmland. Next month, the mayor and her troops will trek to a Coastal Commission hearing in San Francisco and make their case before the 11-member panel.
The city's plan is an innovative one, proposing that Carlsbad property owners be permitted to develop their land if they purchase an equal amount of prime agricultural land elsewhere in the state's coastal zone. That property, in Monterey or Marin counties, to name a few potential sites, would then be turned over to the state Coastal Conservancy or a nonprofit organization and retained in agricultural production.
Local landowners have another option under Carlsbad's plan: If a study validated by the city shows that agriculture is no longer economically feasible on their property, they can develop it as they wish with no penalty.
If approved, the city's so-called "off-site mitigation program for agriculture" will be the first of its kind in the state, officials at Coastal Commission headquarters in San Francisco said.
That's a big if, however, because, as usual, the city and the commission's staff analysts are not entirely in agreement over the plan. Moreover, both sides seem to think they've bent over backward to accommodate the needs of the other.
"The city has made some tremendous, tremendous concessions in coming up with this plan," said Gary Wayne, a city planner. "We have done the lion's share of the compromising. We want to end this dispute, but this is our bottom line."
Chuck Damm, the commission's assistant district director in San Diego, had a different view: "This off-site mitigation stuff is very creative, and we credit the city for coming up with it. But in recommending approval of even the concept , we think we're making a very major concession."
Essentially, commission analysts endorse the off-site mitigation idea for most of the coastal area but oppose it for the balance of the land--a 1,000-acre parcel near Batiquitos Lagoon that is owned by the Hunts, who plan to build a resort and residential development there.