Stanford Law School lecturer Meg Caldwell was unanimously elected chairwoman of the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday by her fellow commissioners, strengthening Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's potential influence over the highly independent political body.
Soon after Caldwell took the gavel, the commission approved a new storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at the Diablo Canyon power plant, near San Luis Obispo, in exchange for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s agreement to open to the public more than three miles of coastal trails just north of the nuclear plant's security zone.
Caldwell was one of four people appointed earlier this year by Schwarzenegger to the 12-member commission. The other eight are appointed by the Assembly speaker and Senate Rules Committee -- a three-way split intended to shield the commission from political pressure as it decides on development projects along the state's 1,100-mile coastline.
"The governor has an incredible strong ocean- and coastal-protection vision," Caldwell said in an interview Wednesday after her election. "It's completely compatible with the Coastal Act. I view the obligation of a coastal commissioner and his vision as synergistic."
Caldwell, 44, director of Stanford's Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program for the past decade, is a university lecturer and an expert in land-use policies to manage growth.
As chairwoman of the commission, Caldwell will hold a seat on the state Coastal Conservancy, a sister agency to the commission that doles out millions of dollars a year to preserve the coast and public access.
The vote came shortly after two commissioners were sworn into office: Dr. Dan Secord, a Santa Barbara city councilman, and Mary K. Shallenberger, a longtime environmental staff member of former Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco).
Under rules adopted by the Legislature last year to shield the commission from politicking, Shallenberger will serve a four-year term. That means her tenure will long outlast that of Burton, who must leave office this month due to term limits.
Secord, a physician, was appointed by Schwarzenegger and can be removed by the governor at any time.
The commission, initially established by voters in 1972 and then by the Legislature's passage of the Coastal Act in 1974, has bedeviled previous California governors, who have tried to control the powerful body as it ruled on proposed developments of well-connected individuals and federal projects, and even weighed in on foreign policies.
On Wednesday, the commission touched briefly on federal nuclear policy by granting approval to PG&E's proposed facility to store highly radioactive "spent fuel" from its reactors on the site. This nuclear waste, like that from other plants, has no place to go, as plans to create a permanent burial site in Nevada's Yucca Mountain are mired in controversy.
The commission concluded that the storage facility may outlast the life of the power plant, and thus block public access to this stretch of the coast in perpetuity. In exchange for loss of access, the commission will require PG&E within two years to open land it owns between the power plant and Montana de Oro State Park near Morro Bay. A task force will study how to open a coastal trail in a safe and ecologically sensitive way.
"This is a signature success story for the commission," said Mark Massara, the Sierra Club's coastal program manager. He also was delighted by the election of Caldwell as chairwoman. "Having her take a higher profile role [on the] commission is only going to help the governor's pro-coast legacy."