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Her Critics Wonder: Did the Coast Lose a Friend?

When Toni Iseman joined the coastal panel, O.C. activists saw her as an ally. Not anymore.

May 22, 2005|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

When Toni Iseman was appointed to the California Coastal Commission two years ago, environmentalists hailed her arrival.

After all, the Laguna Beach councilwoman was a proven environmental crusader.

Iseman became known as the "Laguna Phantom" in the 1980s when, under cover of darkness, she planted anti-Irvine Co. signs along proposed development routes in Laguna Canyon. In 1994 she stood on the front lines of a grass-roots fight against tract homes, chaining herself to a bulldozer to stall development.

But the rising star of Orange County's environmental community has since fallen out of favor. Groups including the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation that applauded Iseman's appointment to the state's premier planning agency, which oversees development along 1,150 miles of California coastline, are now calling for her ouster.

In particular, Iseman's critics point to her support for development at the Dana Point Headlands and Bolsa Chica wetlands -- gut-wrenching defeats for Orange County environmentalists.

"She's on her last legs," said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's coastal programs. "I think everybody was really hopeful Toni would be a strong coastal commissioner, but we're two years into this, and, frankly, the environment can't take any more beatings."

Iseman defended her record, saying that what she considered smart compromises were misinterpreted by activists as votes for developers.

"I don't think the environmental community knows when it wins," said Iseman, 59. "The lack of compromise creates worse projects than if you can step up and be involved."

Like any other interest group, environmentalists will flex a little lobbying muscle to send a message, said Jody Freeman, professor of environmental law at UCLA.

"Their view is that the commission exists to slow down or prevent development, and if commissioners don't vote in a way that will do that to their satisfaction, they're going to shift their support," Freeman said. "What some people might think of as compromise, other people think of as a sellout. It's all in your perspective."

Iseman's term on the commission officially ended Friday, but she will occupy the seat until the Senate Rules Committee under state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) reappoints her or chooses another candidate.

This round of appointees will be the first to serve four-year terms, which were enacted in 2003 after a Newport Beach group challenged the agency's constitutionality. The fixed terms were seen as a remedy to the Legislature's previous ability to remove commissioners at will, which a state appeals court said gave it undue power over an agency that belonged to the executive branch.

Massara said he hopes this year's round of appointments will help offset what he sees as a pro-development majority that often includes Iseman. Massara and other Iseman critics say they're disappointed in part because they had high expectations for her.

"She definitely had a good reputation as a pro-environment public figure," said Rick Wilson, coastal management coordinator with the Surfrider Foundation. "I don't know if the coast or the ocean had been so much a focus of her efforts, but it was just sort of presumed that she would be a good coastal commissioner."

Local activists said they were especially upset with Iseman's support for luxury homes, commercial space and a hotel atop the Dana Point Headlands, which were approved by a 7-5 vote in January 2004. Because coastal commissioners often look to the commissioner whose district the project is in, Wilson said, Iseman's support was very influential.

Surfrider and the Sierra Club have sued the commission, alleging that its approval of the project violates the state Coastal Act by allowing an old seawall to be replaced with one 2,000 feet long. The suit says the new wall should be considered new construction, which would make it illegal.

Iseman stuck by her decision, pointing out that more than half of the Dana Point Headlands project would be open space, and that the development included new beach access and five public parks.

"People don't understand where a project begins and where it ends," she said. "Isn't less than 50% development better than 90% development?"

She added: "If you can get 50% open space and not spend public money, I'd say it's pretty remarkable. We extracted lots of public benefits."

Sitting outside a Laguna Beach coffee shop one morning last week, Iseman described her struggle for reappointment as an uphill battle against a core group of environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club.

"Win or lose, I'm coming out of this tainted," she said. "This isn't about me; it's about every other applicant coming down the line and trying to make individual decisions but having to look over their shoulder" to see how environmentalists will react.

If Iseman is guilty of anything, it's being fair, said Bill Rihn, president of the South Laguna Civic Assn., which supports Iseman's reappointment.

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