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California's Beleaguered Coastline: Rapacious Developers Ignore the Law

November 05, 1989|Madelyn Glickfeld | Madelyn Glickfeld of Malibu is a member of the California Coastal Commission.

California is faced with an unprecedented wave of illegal coastal development. The California Coastal Commission is currently pursuing more than 600 violations of the Coastal Act, including such egregious examples as:

* A real-estate agent and a few property owners widen, pave and artificially drain a dirt fire road along a 2 1/2-mile ridge, without permits. The drains will concentrate runoff during the rainy season on the erodible slopes, potentially creating whole new canyons, choking the stream beds below with silt and debris and flooding the residential areas below.

* A developer despoils a freshwater marsh as a dump site for dirt, adding to the more than 90% of historic Southern California wetlands that have already disappeared, depriving birds and fish of habitats.

* An entire 23-acre canyon bottom is graded without permits. Before they were stopped, contractors moved thousands of cubic yards of earth in a landslide area, completely gutting and partly damming a natural stream channel. If the dam is not removed, heavy rains could wash out the downstream fire station and undermine Pacific Coast Highway.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 12, 1989 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Column 5 Opinion Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Coastal Commission--Because of an editing error, an article on illegal coastal development in Opinion on Nov. 5 misstated the area covered by enforcement officers for the California Coastal Commission. The ratio is one full-time enforcement officer for each 457,000 acres of land; there is a total of 1.6 million acres of land in the coastal zone.

* A "ranch" at the top of an important coastal canyon is being used, without permits, as a dump. Since the dump covers the headwaters of an environmentally sensitive stream, the stream bed for miles below the property has gone dry, endangering vegetation and wildlife that depend on the stream, including the migrating monarch butterfly, deer, raccoon and mountain lion.

* An illegal seawall is placed on the beach, consisting of unengineered concrete rubble and steel rods. If not removed, storm waves will soon move the concrete and steel into shallow water, presenting a danger to unsuspecting swimmers.

All these examples occurred in a 25-mile stretch of Santa Monica Mountains coastline. The commission's enforcement staff estimates that an average of five major violations are reported each week in Los Angeles County. While more than half the statewide enforcement caseload is in the county, every part of the coast has experienced illegal development. In Big Sur, 17 miles of roads have been graded without permits, filling and blocking nearly two dozen streams.

How can this happen?

While the majority of landowners are responsible and law-abiding, a new, particularly greedy and rapacious type has recently emerged. Soaring coastal land values have attracted this kind of speculator, one without any attachment or responsibility to the land or community. Some of these landowners don't know enough about development or land to understand the dangers to coastal resources or the surrounding community. Others are just plain crooks, intentionally carving up coastal land in a way they know would never be permitted and then trying to sell it to innocent and naive buyers.

The second part of the problem is a governor that has been trying to starve the Coastal Commission out of existence. Gov. George Deukmejian has cut the commission's budget in each of the last seven years--110 staff members are now responsible for the same workload that 212 had in 1980-81.

The statewide enforcement program is run by one full-time enforcement officer, aided by five part-time district enforcement officers and a few part-time interns. This amounts to one full-time enforcement officer for each 1.6 million acres of land in the coastal zone. Since Deukmejian has required another 10% budget cut for the commission this fiscal year, even this inadequate enforcement program is in jeopardy.

The third part of the problem is that the Coastal Act itself and the commission's procedures were never designed to deal with an enforcement problem this big and this serious. The enforcement program presumes that citizens will report and discourage most violations, that most violations are unintentional, that most violators will cooperatively stop work when requested and that most illegal damage to the environment can be restored when the commission asks the violator to do the work correctly. None of these is proving true.

In fact, many violations are reported too late or not at all. Some witnesses fear retribution if they report; other observers assume that activities must be done with permits since the violations are so large.

An increasing number of violators act knowledgeably and intentionally and actually step up the intensity of their work when they are caught. While the commission does have the right to seek a court restraining order and high monetary damages for intentional violators, (it recently filed a $20-million lawsuit against a violator), much additional environmental damage can occur before a restraining order can be obtained.

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