SAN FRANCISCO — For most of the past six years, Nancy Cave has been California's lone coastal sentry, fighting a rear-guard action to protect the state's most precious resource from the ravages of illegal development.
As an outgrowth of former Gov. George Deukmejian's decision to slash the California Coastal Commission's budget, Cave--officially the agency's enforcement officer--labored as state government's only full-time "coastal cop."
Sometimes, that meant that complaints about alleged illegal development activity went unanswered--at least temporarily. For example, Cave said, in 1987 her office received a complaint that Malibu landowner Tom Voiss was clearing and grading his hillside homestead next to Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, posing a potential for erosion and stream pollution.
Cave recalled that initially she "couldn't respond to the calls," and that then "there was no staff to go out there" for at least a week.
And "because of the sheer overload of cases," she added, the agency did not file a court action against Voiss until four months after first being told about the problem. Meanwhile, Cave said, the damage continued on a daily basis.
But Cave, who has been called the state's most overburdened bureaucrat, now may be getting some permanent relief.
As part of his first state budget, Gov. Pete Wilson, Deukmejian's successor, earlier this month proposed increasing the commission's budget by $656,000, in part to pay for three assistants to help Cave investigate complaints of illegal development activity along the state's 1,100-mile-long coastline.
Wilson's proposal has been greeted enthusiastically by Coastal Commission officials, whose workload grew as the staff declined during Deukmejian's eight years in office. Unable to abolish the commission--which he opposed as an unnecessary intrusion on local planning powers--he periodically slashed its budget. One of the early effects of his cuts was to reduce the full-time enforcement staff from as many as six to one--Cave. Overall, the commission's staff dwindled from about 170 to 98.
Cave learned about Wilson's spending proposal as she arrived at work on the day Wilson unveiled his spending plan. She was greeted by the words "good news," which had been scrawled onto a summary of the governor's budget message that was tacked onto a receptionist's office door.
Cave welcomed the proposal but voiced guarded optimism, citing many hours of legislative hearings the budget faces in Sacramento. Nonetheless, she cracked: "It's the first time in my relationship with my husband that I haven't come home depressed on budget day."
In her job, Cave investigates cases that range from forged coastal development permits to overextended sun decks. The most frequent violations involve complaints about the unauthorized grading of coastal property for a road or home, the removal of trees and shrubs, or construction of seawalls and other shoreline barriers that restrict public access.
While it takes about an average of 40 hours to fully investigate a complaint, Cave said an alleged violation can take years to resolve, especially if the commission has to go to court on the matter.
During the Deukmejian administration, budget cuts forced Cave to spend the bulk of her time at the commission's office in San Francisco. That meant she had to rely on college interns or other commission staffers to physically investigate residents' complaints--most of which came from Los Angeles County--and report back.
Even before Deukmejian left office in early January, Cave received temporary help--an assistant who began work in the fall and whose salary is paid by a federal grant. But the federal funds are available for only one year.
Moreover, the backlog of complaints awaiting Cave's attention--and in many cases stacked high atop her desk--continues to hover around 700. As quickly as she resolves one dispute, she said, another typically arises.
The upshot is that Cave, who makes $48,000 a year, has had "the worst job in state government in terms of being overburdened," said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The conservancy is a state agency that frequently deals with the Coastal Commission on development issues in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
And Gordon Hart, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said that the commission's staff shortage has weakened the panel's ability to perform such key tasks as protecting coastal access, curbing visual pollution and stopping land erosion.
Hart said the enforcement office's staffing situation "couldn't be worse." He charged that because of it, some developers agree to grading restrictions or other building conditions because they know "they can violate it with impunity."
As a result, the goal of preserving the coastline has been undermined, according to a 1989 report issued by the state Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government.