In a surprising move, Steve Blank—a voting member of the powerful California Coastal Commission—resigned from the agency. He cited having taken a new position with the federal government as the reason. But in a speech he gave last week to the California League of Conservation Voters who honored him with an award, he hinted at other reasons that may have prompted his decision. Disappointment with the agency’s leadership, and frustration with the Commission’s allegedly increased tendency to make “reasonable” decisions regarding development, were prominent themes in his talk. He criticized the agency’s current leadership and contrasted it with that of Peter Douglas—the former Executive Director and self-avowed environmental zealot who ran the Commission for 26 years. Here is an excerpt:
Unfortunately Peter Douglas is gone and his unbending vision to save the coast is fading. Some current commissioners seem to want the Commission to be reasonable, and understand the reality of politics. In fact, some may even want a new “reasonable” executive director who will turn the commission into just another regulatory organization driven by the people they are supposed to regulate.
We can only speculate that the current Executive Director, Charles Lester, can’t have taken such remarks kindly. Although he probably isn’t surprised. Blank was never shy at Commission hearings and regularly sparred with the Commission’s staff. He also had the uncanny habit of snapping at members of the public who worked up the nerve to speak during the meetings’ public comment period. Last December, for example, the Commission’s General Counsel noted the impropriety of his voicing his opposition to San Francisco’s Beach Chalet soccer field project during public comment time (a procedural “no-no”). And a couple of years ago, former PLF attorney Luke Wake faced similar treatment when Blank demanded that he produce “evidence” to support his comments—a tactic that is as rude as it is unprecedented. But if Blank really did view his position on the Commission as requiring him to act “unreasonably” in order to protect California’s coast from development, it’s no one wonder he lacked tact in doing so.
While Blank in his speech laments the rise of “new development” in the coastal zone (including, heaven forbid, “condos”), there is a certain irony in the fact that he himself built a 6,000 square foot house on a 261-acre ranch within the coastal zone back in 2000. As one San Luis Obispo resident, Rob McArthy—a would-be home builder—points out, the Commission regularly places draconian limits on the size of “building pads” and structures on permit applicants, limits which appear not to have applied to Blank’s own development. It is as though Blank believes that there is a point at which “enough is enough” when it comes to building near the Coast, and that because that “tipping point” has already been reached, the Commission should dig in its heels and act “unreasonably” towards new applicants by disapproving building permits. Of course, fortunately for Blank, he already has his house.
Blank, like other Commissioners, believes that the so-called “right” of the public to “coastal access,” “visual resources,” and “environmental conservation” is more important than the constitutional right of property owners to use and enjoy their land. They tend to ignore those provisions in the Coastal Act designed to protect property owners’ rights and make it their mission to permit as little development as possible. They think that the public has a right to decide how private property is used and developed, and that property owners should yield to majoritarian decision-making about their land. Such an idea is abhorrent to the protection of civil liberties and to the preservation of a free society. If the Commission is indeed acting more “reasonably” toward property owners post-Peter Douglas, that is a huge step in the right direction; it’s unfortunate that Blank couldn’t see it that way.