“Sea-Level Rise” no longer just a Coastal Commission buzzword

October 31, 2013 | By JENNIFER THOMPSON

As readers of this blog know, Pacific Legal Foundation has a long history of suing the California Coastal Commission for its abuse of private property rights.  But the Foundation’s Coastal Land Rights Project also monitors the Commission by attending its monthly meetings and live tweeting about what happens there from its twitter handle, @thecoastwatch.  We endeavor to provide accurate reporting to our followers, but also to liven up what can often be a very dull couple of days with amusing anecdotes and repartee.  Hence our proposal at one of the meetings for a drinking game, requiring everyone to take a shot at every invocation of the term, “sea-level rise.”  For that term is increasingly tossed around during the meetings—by Commission staff, Commissioners, public speakers and environmental groups—as a basis for urging the Commission to do something.  And while the various players often disagree about what that something should be, they all believe that something should be done, and that the Commission should be the one to do it.

As a related, if someone indulgent aside: an incident at one of last year’s meetings underscores this homogenous assumption.  There, an expert gave a presentation to the Commission about sea-level rise that included a powerpoint presentation.  And in this presentation he showed a slide with a measuring stick along the side—to demonstrate how many feet he expects the seas to rise over particular periods of time.  In order to make the measurements more meaningful, he used a picture of a real person, and showed the sea rising up—first to her feet, then her waist, etc.  Only, he didn’t use a ubiquitous image of a real person, he used an actual picture of Sarah Palin.  And then a cartoon shark swam across the screen and attacked her.  This, of course, solicited streams of laughter from the Commissioners.  Because of course, only backwards people like the Republicans’ former vice presidential candidate are silly enough to doubt the doom and gloom predictions of these types of experts.  (View the animation for yourself here, by clicking the Dec. 12, 2012 video archive link, beginning at 4:27:44).

It is thus not surprising that the Commission has now done something about Sea-Level Rise by publishing a Guidance document.  This document is currently in draft form and the agency is accepting public comments through January 15.  As the document runs 178 pages long, all of the above-mentioned groups will undoubtedly find “something” in it for them.  But, as is often the case with Commission activities, the connection between the implementation of the policies in the document—and those groups—is tenuous at best.  The people who will actually feel the impact of these new policies are local governments that must put them into practice, and property owners, who must now reckon with a whole new set of requirements in order to obtain coastal development permits.

As we’ve noted before, because anyone wanting to engage in “development” in the Coastal Zone must obtain a permit, and because “development” means anything and everything—from erecting a fence, to purely-paper transactions, to a 15-minute fireworks display—millions of coastal property owners are beholden to the Commission.  These new Sea-Level rise policies, once incorporated into the permitting process, will only make it more difficult for property owners to use and enjoy their property.  For the grandiose statements in this document will eventually translate into more paperwork, more fees, and more bureaucratic red tape.  Already, it’s virtually impossible to build anything new in the Coastal Zone without hiring an army of lawyers, consultants, architects, engineers and other specialists to make a case to the Commission about why it should give you a permit.  Those experts are the real beneficiaries of this new guidance document—for it makes them even more indispensable to the process than ever.  And property owners are the losers, for their right to use their land for productive and beneficial uses is once again being sacrificed on the altar of the majoritarian ideals du jour.