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Out-of-Step Bureaucracy Roams California's Shores

Electing members would help rein in the rogue Coastal Commission.

January 23, 2003|Wade Major | Wade Major is a member of the Land Use Preservation Defense Fund, based in Malibu.

Would California Coastal Commission members appointed for set amounts of time rather than serving at the whim of politicians fix that troubled dinosaur?

Well, it might fix one problem -- patronage and influence -- but at what cost? Such a remedy would not make the commission truly independent of the environmental extremists who have spent a decade solidifying their control over it. These are the people who think that no coastal resident, no recreational beachgoer, no human being should have access to California's shore and coastal mountains, which need above all to be protected from such pernicious American traditions as remodeling, gardening, sports and pet ownership.

Long-term reform of the commission will not be served by greater independence but by greater accountability, to both legislators and voters, thereby protecting not only California's coast but the rights of its residents.

Since the 1972 passage of the initiative that created the Coastal Commission, the commission has been repeatedly rocked by accusations of unethical conduct and a growing belief that it has become more an instrument of social engineering than environmental protection. Just ask the residents of Carmel, Carlsbad, Malibu and San Luis Obispo County, among the most environmentally conscientious communities in the state. Commission propaganda would make Californians believe that these areas have been all but hijacked by ruthless developers hellbent on locking up the state's beaches and paving over its mountains.

Closer scrutiny of the facts, however, reveals a rogue organization less interested in matters of general public interest than in micromanaging such details as the color of people's homes, what they can plant in their gardens and whether they should be allowed to fence wild animals away from the yards where their children play.

Rampant abuse of permitting authority over "the placement of any solid material on the ground" has in some cases resulted in $15,000-per-day fines for everything from the erection of children's play equipment to small sheds. Modest home improvements can mean upward of $40,000 in fees for studies and surveys, expenses that no middle-income family can afford. But nowhere is the commission's hubris more evident than in its refusal to defer to state fire officials on brush clearance, going so far as to insist on restricting the removal of such highly flammable vegetation as sumac, sage and chaparral, even when their proximity to homes would threaten lives and property.

The Marine Forests Society lawsuit that forced the present legal battle questioning the commission's legitimacy offers a rare glimpse of the kinds of tactics the commission might employ with greater regularity if given more "independence."

After the commission objected to the society's unpermitted artificial reef construction off Newport Beach, there are those who suspected the commission of nefarious motives tied to a competing, commission-approved project off the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a project that cost Southern California Edison $126 million. The much cheaper Marine Forests project, if successful, would surely have eroded faith in the commission staff and jeopardized lucrative contracts for future projects based on the San Onofre model, effectively undermining commission power.

The critical issue, though, is not whether the Coastal Commission acted improperly, but that it has the latitude to do so. Greater independence would do nothing but exacerbate any such abuses, leaving commissioners emboldened to wield their power with imprudence. It also would do little to diminish the inordinate power of the commission's most entrenched figure, longtime Executive Director Peter Douglas. Douglas hires the staff whose recommendations guide commission votes. Term-limited commissioners who become more independent of state politicians would invariably become more dependent on Douglas and his staff, concentrating power in a position that already has far too much.

On the other hand, transforming the commission into a democratically elected body -- preferably including residents from coastal communities -- with strict ethical guidelines and an independently selected staff would go a long way toward restoring faith in the commission and its charge.

The ideologues who now control the commission and its staff see environmental protection not as an end in itself but as a means to an end: a crusade to make affordable coastal living extinct, particularly for the poor and middle class, even if it means trampling the most basic constitutional rights to property and liberty.

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