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The Hard-Learned Lessons of a Coastal Preserver

September 20, 1987|Ellen Stern-Harris | Ellen Stern-Harris is executive director of the Beverly Hills-based Fund for the Environment; she served as vice chairperson of the State Coastal Commission for its first four years.

In the late '60s, when I was in my 30s and thought anything was possible, I made up my mind to save the California coast.

I was sitting on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, listening to industry requests for permits--permits for projects that would forever destroy remaining portions of Southern California's unspoiled coast.

My plan was to combine the concept of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission with the structure of the State Water Resources Control Board and its several regional boards, whose proximity would encourage local citizen participation.

I met with environmentalists in Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel and San Francisco. All of them enthusiastically embraced the idea. Later, after watching the Legislature kill or weaken coastal bills (with the help of special-interests lobbyists) we realized that an initiative was our only hope.

One of the toughest problems was deciding whether local elected officials should also be appointed to the commissions. After all, it was the influence of their campaign contributors that had resulted in local governments' giving away so much of the coast already. However, we were persuaded that if we didn't include them, they would work to defeat the initiative. Big mistake.

Proposition 20, the landmark California Coastal Zone Conservation initiative, passed with 55% of the vote, despite the fact our campaign was heavily outspent by the developers, oil companies and utilities--and opposed, ironically, by local government.

Lesson No. 1 : Elected officials should not be appointed; when someone becomes a candidate he or she should be required to resign from the commission. Further, no member of the commission or staff should be permitted to endorse or directly or indirectly raise funds for political figures. As members of a quasi-judicial panel, these aspects of First Amendment expression must be suspended, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety .

By January, 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan, Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti and the Senate Rules Committee had made what were, by and large, good appointments. The staff of both the state and regional commissions were made up of some of the best and the brightest. Many were young, idealistic planners and attorneys who were determined to bring the public-interest ethic to this new agency.

The mandate was to save the coast; Proposition 20 was written to make that possible. In the beginning it even seemed probable. That was before I got my first call from a staff member in the Speaker's office. He congratulated me on being appointed to the statewide Coastal Commission by his boss. Then he told me he'd like me to second the nomination of another appointee to become vice chair of the commission.

I was noncommittal but mad as hell. We had not even had our first meeting yet; I wondered how many more instructions I would be getting. I called Moretti and told him how upset I was. He said he was outraged that anyone in his office would do such a thing and that I would not be bothered again. I wasn't.

One of the commission's first actions was to deny the application of Occidental Oil to drill in the Pacific Palisades. We were doing the kind of thing we were set up to do. (The commission, however has recently approved a new Occidental application for drilling in the Palisades.) However, the single most significant action in the commission's then-brief history was its decision on the expansion of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The staff prepared an eloquent statement likening the destruction of the scenic San Onofre coastal bluffs to the demolishing of a magnificent cathedral. It recommended that the permit be granted, but with such environmentally protective conditions that it won the commission's approval.

Hard-hatted utility workers picketed outside before the vote was taken. Afterward, the utilities took their appeal to court, to chambers of commerce and to newspapers and broadcasters. There were rumblings in Sacramento that the commission's budget might be cut. Soon the matter was back before the commission for a new vote.

It was held in the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors' hearing room after a caucus in the men's room. As the only woman on the commission, I can't say what transpired there, but shortly thereafter San Onofre got the go-ahead largely on the utilities' terms. (What an irony that California now has an electrical-generating surplus that will cost consumers several billion dollars to maintain through 1990--with the most notable expense being nuclear power plants.)

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