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The Endless Job of Saving the Coast

May 24, 2001|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — It runs for 1,100 miles, serving up alternate glimpses of nature at its most spectacular and human development at its most garish--rugged cliffs and white sands here, ticky tack motels and smokestack plants there. The scenic contrasts to be found along the California coast are the product and proof of a larger struggle, a war of ideology and values that one of its most experienced tacticians doubts will ever end.

"The coast," said Peter Douglas, coauthor of the 1972 Coastal Initiative and longtime executive director of the California Coastal Commission it helped create, "is never saved. It's always being saved. The job of environmental stewardship of the coast is never done. It's never dull, and it's never done."

Douglas was seated last Tuesday on a couch in his office on the 20th floor of a downtown high-rise. His critics on one side--the developers and private property rights champions who tend to see Douglas and the Coastal Commission as statist spoilsports, as roadblocks to the California Dream of a cliff-side mansion with a Pacific view--would have noticed that this 58-year-old man, bearded, had come to work dressed in a blue shirt, no tie, khakis and, God help us, sandals.

Yes, Birkenstocks.

His critics from the opposite ranks--the environmentalists who complain that the Coastal Commission has become a rubber stamp for any buckaroo with oceanfront property and a blueprint--might have found symbolism in the view from Douglas' window: Construction cranes busily throwing up even more high-rises on the edge of San Francisco Bay. Of course, the bay has its own protective agency, but attacks on the Coastal Commission rarely get derailed by mere facts.

The context of this conversation was a Superior Court ruling last month that challenged the legal validity of the commission. The case, brought in Sacramento by a conservative lawyer who has long kept his sights trained on the Coastal Commission, ostensibly involved an artificial reef off Newport Beach. It might be more accurate, however, to describe it as only the latest in a series of attempts to abolish the coastal protection program initiated by Californians nearly 30 years ago.

Judge Charles Kobayashi found fault with the process by which the 12 commissioners are appointed--four by the governor, four by the state Senate and four by the Assembly: "The system of checks and balances," the judge declared, "does not give adequate protection. . . . Purportedly an executive agency, the commission is answerable to no one in the executive. The members are not directly answerable to the voters." And so forth.

However, as Douglas has countered, and as state attorneys will argue in their appeals, the appointment process not only has passed legal tests in the past, it remains one of the fundamental reasons the Coastal Commission itself has survived for so long. As Douglas noted: "The Coastal Commission has served under five administrations. Three of those five governors were hostile to the program. In fact, one of the five governors campaigned on the promise to abolish it."

No, giving a California governor full power to boss or bury the Coastal Commission would not seem to be a path to better accountability, as the judge seems to believe. More likely down that road would loom golf courses and condos on every craggy bluff. After all, campaign ads cost money and, when the big contributors call, what's a poor governor to do but cave: Let them build their trophy castle--or subdivision, or hotel, or whatever--by the sea.

And as for the ability of "local authorities" to oversee coastal development, well, Douglas grew up in Redondo Beach in the 1950s and witnessed firsthand what can happen when developers work their political magic on city planning commissions and councils. The single-story house of his childhood is now a five-story condominium, the sort of view-blocking development that once seemed to be the certain future of California's coast.

The Coastal Act altered that future. Douglas said many of the commission's best works rest in "the things you don't see--the public access that was not lost, the wetlands that haven't been filled, the scenic vistas and resources that haven't been despoiled by human structures or development, the subdivision that didn't occur, the land form that wasn't changed."

He mentioned a few of the more memorable coastal battlegrounds--Tomales Bay, Sea Ranch, Spanish Bay--and said: "I can go up and down the coast and every quarter of a mile point and tell you about battles that took place there, tell you what would have been there but for the Coastal Act."

And yet the work of the Coastal

Commission, as even Douglas acknowledged, always has been "subjective," and it frequently has not been popular: "The commission has a record. . . . For some people it has allowed too much development. For others, it hasn't allowed enough." He understands better than any Californian, perhaps, that the struggle to maintain balance between property rights and common good is tricky, divisive and will not go away.

Luckily for the coastal protection program, however, it retains two essential allies. One is the people of California. They wanted it. They created it. And they have defended it, again and again. The other is the coast itself. Its most beautiful stretches argue more eloquently than any words the case for protection. And the ticky tack patches? Well, in a different way, they make exactly the same point.

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