Grading the California Coastal Commission

July 23, 2012 | By JENNIFER THOMPSON

Here at Pacific Legal Foundation, we are not shy about criticizing the California Coastal Commission.  We frequently hale the Commission into court for trying to force property owners to comply with unconstitutional conditions in exchange for development permits, and for seeking to expand its jurisdiction.  Members of PLF’s Coastal Land Rights Project also attend the Commission’s monthly meetings to keep tabs on this powerful state agency.  But we aren’t the only ones.  Members of environmental lobbying organizations routinely attend the Commission’s meetings and speak out during the public comment period against development, public works projects and private property owners.  This month, two of these organizations, Sierra Club California and League for Coastal Protection, issued their annual Conservation Voting Chart and report for 2011 which grades the Commission and the individual commissioners on coastal conservation.  The report gives the Commission an overall score of 56% in favor of coastal conservation, a 5% drop from the prior year.  Commissioner Sara Wan, whose 15-year stint on the Commission ended last year, ranked first in having the most “conservation-friendly” voting record at 75% while Commissioners Brennan and McClure tied for last place at 40%.

This voting chart is silly for a number of reasons.

First, it examines only 23 Commission votes, each of which was hand-selected by “coastal conservation activists based on [the vote’s] likely impact on coastal resources and [its] potential to set important statewide precedent.”  This careful pruning of the data sample renders the results unhelpful.  Second, attempting to quantify Commission decisions as either a “positive vote for coastal conservation” or a “negative vote for coastal conservation,” oversimplifies and misunderstands the purpose of the Coastal Commission.  Its job is to administer the California Coastal Act, not to prohibit all development along the Coast.  And while the Coastal Act does tip the scales in favor of environmental development, it also contains provisions that are designed to protect property owners and local economies.  Environmental activist groups may dislike those provisions of the Act, but they should not delude themselves into thinking that the Coastal Act requires the Commission to shut-down all development along the Coast.

The report accompanying the chart reveals that is precisely what the Sierra Club and League for Coastal Protection would like: a ban on all new development.  The projects these groups object to include lifeguard towers, boat docks and public restrooms along the beach.  Given that the Coastal Act mandates the Commission to maximize public access to the coast, it would be counter-productive to ban all of the accessory buildings—like lifeguard towers and restrooms—which people need to enjoy themselves at the beach.  Why “protect” the Coast if people are unable to appreciate it?  Reading the report, one gets the sense that the purpose of coastal protection—as these environmental groups see it—is not to facilitate human use and enjoyment, but rather to preserve the coastline pristine and unused.

As alarming as that ideology is, my favorite (i.e. most outrageous) part of the report is where the authors discuss the controversial Malibu development project proposed by the drummer the “Edge,” from the band U2.  The report describes the project as including “five oversized houses” and states that “[t]he matter was complicated by the fact that the applicant hired too many lawyers and lobbyists, and that those consultants and experts sacrificed their clients’ well-established environmental credentials in their illogical insistence on novel private property rights issues.”  Since the Commission denied this project, one might surmise that the applicant did not, in fact, hire enough “lawyers and lobbyists.”  We think that property rights are in a very sorry state of affairs when people have to hire lawyers and lobbyists to use their own land.  But there is something particularly distasteful about environmental lobbying groups complaining about property owners hiring lobbyists in order to use their own, private property.  Perhaps if every time the members of these environmentalist organizations had to obtain permission from a state agency to use their property, they would be a little less dismissive of coastal property owners’ attempts to do the same.