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Coastal Commission--an Ideal Gone Astray : Now 15 Years Old, Panel Has Become Entangled in Politics, Money, Back-Room Maneuvering

September 07, 1987|ROBERT W. STEWART and RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writers

Fifteen years after it was created to turn back a storm tide of development along the state's 1,100-mile oceanfront, the California Coastal Commission is no longer an impartial, independent, high court of the coast.

Instead, decisions governing projects worth billions of dollars have become tangled in a thicket of legislative politics and back-room maneuvering that the commission's creators had sought to avoid.

In a four-month examination of commission records, court pleadings and other public documents and in interviews with more than 50 people--commissioners, agency staff members, environmentalists, developers and others, The Times found that:

--In what some see as a threat to the commission's integrity, Democratic politicians have named political fund-raisers to the panel, raising questions about the influence of political giving on the regulation of coastal development.

Emerge as Swing Votes

--Two commissioners who raise money for prominent Democrats have emerged as key swing votes, siding alternately with developers and environmentalists, and often decide the fate of important projects.

--On one occasion, a Chevron Corp. official complained that she was approached by a commissioner who said the company could win approval of an oil-drilling project by hiring a politically well-connected Sacramento lobbyist, a charge that the commissioner denied.

--Politicians who appoint coastal commissioners have compromised the commission's independence by attempting to directly influence commission votes.

--Commission business that should be conducted in public often is not. Commission members regularly receive information privately from interested parties, contrary to advice from the state attorney general.

The panel at the center of the controversy traces its origins to 1972 when California voters--alarmed by the fast-food stands and high-rise condos that flooded the coast in the 1960s--approved Proposition 20 by a 55% majority. The initiative wrested control of seaside development from cities and counties and vested it in a new agency, the California Coastal Commission.

Under the mandate of Proposition 20, the panel all but halted coastal development while it developed a master plan for the oceanfront. Rejecting much of the plan, the Legislature instead passed the Coastal Act of 1976, which allowed local governments to regain their power to regulate coastal development by adopting new land-use plans and zoning ordinances.

A reconstituted commission was responsible for approving the local plans. In the interim, the commission retained the power to govern development in a coastal zone stretching the length of California and varying in width from 1,000 yards to five miles.

At the outset, the commission was dominated by conservationists, largely because of the influence of then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a liberal Democrat with strong environmental leanings. The governor shares responsibility for commission appointments equally with the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Rules Committee. Under current law, each appointing authority names four commissioners, who serve at the pleasure of the appointing officials.

With the departure of Brown and the 1982 election of George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican who has called for abolition of the commission, the balance of power shifted dramatically.

Deukmejian in early 1983 appointed four new commissioners who, to a large extent, shared his view that land-use planning is best left to local officials. In addition, the Republican governor drastically reduced the agency's budget and staff.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, for example, the commission's budget was $9.1 million, down 13% from five years ago. As a result, the commission cut its staff to 118, down from a peak of 188, closed its Eureka office and fell further behind in coastal planning. To date, the commission has approved only 51 of the 130 local coastal plans it must eventually consider.

Tilt Toward Developers

The governor was not the only politician whose work reshaped the commission. In the early 1980s, the Legislature's Democratic leaders appointed several commissioners who appeared to be more sympathetic to developers than their predecessors.

In February, 1986, for example, the Senate Rules Committee appointed San Diego businessman Gilbert R. Contreras to the commission, replacing Marshall B. Grossman, a Los Angeles attorney known as an uncompromising environmentalist.

The new appointments effectively split the commission into three camps. On one side are the Deukmejian commissioners, more sympathetic than previous commissioners to the concerns of landowners and developers. On the other side are the remaining environmentalists. In the middle is a third group, a bloc of three or four commissioners who side alternately with conservationists and developers and who often determine the success or failure of multimillion-dollar projects.

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