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California and the West

Coastal Panel Seeks Stronger Role

Habitat: Commission defies state's top environmental official in pushing to join in development planning.


OCEANSIDE — Defying a request by the state's top environmental official, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday voted to push for a role in crafting habitat conservation plans that allow development on fragile lands.

State and federal officials, as well as developers and business leaders, are crying foul, saying the commission's move will disrupt a creative planning process hailed as an ideal way to balance development and protection of natural resources.

Coastal commission involvement would add another layer of bureaucracy and delay for landowners and developers, building industry officials say. There would be "no incentive for the private sector to participate" in habitat plans, said David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.

Valerie Nera, director of agriculture and resources for the California Chamber of Commerce, also was dismayed by the vote. "A lot of state and local governments have spent a lot of time putting together habitat conservation plans--some of them have been many years in the making," she said. "It seems like we're going backward now."

Habitat conservation plans, also called HCPs, allow developers to set aside large chunks of land in exchange for permission to destroy sensitive habitat elsewhere. One of the first was Orange County's central and coastal 37,000-acre Natural Communities Conservation Plan, a landmark agreement by California, the U.S. Interior Department, environmentalists and landowners--primarily the Irvine Co.--to protect nearly 40 species that are nearing extinction.

The Clinton administration's habitat conservation program has created dozens of land-use plans throughout California, including some that encompass long stretches of coastline.

But the commission has not been involved directly in designing those plans. A Carlsbad habitat conservation plan piqued the commission's concern, leading to a Sept. 28 request from Executive Director Peter Douglas that federal officials consult the agency in every such plan that could affect coastal resources.

"Just because you have an HCP doesn't mean you meet Coastal Act standards," Douglas said, referring to stringent protections in the landmark law passed by voters in 1972. "Our review process is much more rigorous than what those plans are submitted to now. . . . What's being attempted here is cutting the Coastal Act out of the process."

Douglas said consultation already is within the commission's jurisdiction under federal law; formalizing the commission's involvement would merely mean that the agency would not have to seek consultation rights on a case-by-case basis.

The request is being studied in Washington, with a decision expected by month's end. Thursday's vote upheld the letter's intent and called for a public workshop at a future meeting.

In a strongly worded letter to Douglas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Michael Spear wrote on Aug. 11 that such a move would "have a chilling effect on applicants' willingness to engage" in the program.

The conflict came to light Wednesday, when discussion of what was billed as a routine item was interrupted by an urgent message from state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols. She urged the commission to withdraw its request to help state and federal officials craft the plans.

On Thursday, the commission appeared ready to comply with Nichols' request--until a handful of commissioners and members of the public accused the agency of bowing to political interference from Sacramento.

"I am in no way going to vote to knuckle under to that type of pressure," said Commissioner Annette Rose, who called the situation "deeply disturbing."

What originally would have been a narrow vote to comply with Nichols' request turned into a unanimous vote to disregard her.

Attempts to reach Nichols were unsuccessful Thursday.

However, in a letter commissioners received after their vote, Nichols wrote that Douglas' request "obviously raises fundamental questions affecting my jurisdiction over this program." Nichols wrote she would prefer that the commission work with the state Department of Fish and Game on complex habitat conservation plans.


Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this report.

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