Every year, as the California population increases, the amount of “beach per person” in California goes down. Inversely, the value of coastal real estate goes up, especially near population centers. This creates an ever-increasing incentive for developers to build on undeveloped coastal land, where potential profits far outweigh projects inland.
It was to prevent rampant overdevelopment of the coast that thousands of unpaid Californians worked a political miracle in 1972 to qualify Proposition 20 for the ballot, gathering 418,000 valid signatures in only 35 days. The initiative passed by a large margin and established the California Coastal Commission, the agency charged with determining what is appropriate coastal development. Proposition 20 set criteria that includes public access to the beach and scenic views from coastal highways, as well as protection for wildlife habitat and coastal air and water quality.
Four years after Proposition 20’s passage, on Sept. 29, 1976, and in his first term as governor, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Coastal Act, reauthorizing the initiative. Gov. Brown personally helped with last-minute lobbying that brought the bill through the Senate by a narrow margin. The provisions of Proposition 20 would have otherwise sunseted.
Now, for a moment or two, the coastal protection movement may proudly celebrate that glorious anniversary. Coastal advocates can also wholeheartedly celebrate major victories at the commission’s September meetings, including rejection of the Newport Banning Ranch project, and defeat of yet another coastal power plant in Oxnard.
But the celebratory mood does not seem to be unanimous. Has Gov. Brown quietly repudiated what he personally accomplished in signing the Coastal Act?
The Coastal Act is Gov. Jerry Brown’s legacy, but the only comment offered by the inscrutable governor’s office regarding the Coastal Commission since January was that “the governor’s office does not get involved in personnel issues.” This was in reference to the commission’s firing of its executive director, Charles Lester, last February. Press coverage of commission issues has been continuous ever since, but there has been no response from the governor’s office to multiple interview requests from major California newspapers.
A second question, also murky, is why Senate Bill 1190, which would have banned ex-parte communications by Coastal Commissioners, failed so miserably on the Assembly floor. Yes votes totaled only 15. No votes totaled 48. Abstentions totaled 17.
Had it passed, the bill would have helped prevent lopsided coziness between developers’ consultants and commissioners. These consultants are hired specifically to sway commission votes toward coastal development permits, and unlike most project opponents, they have budgets to pick up the tab for a fancy lunch or dinner with a commissioner. The bill would also have protected the independence of commission staff in making assessments of proposed projects.
Among the 65 Assembly members who did not support Senate Bill 1190 were all Assembly Republicans (no surprise there), 21 Democrats who voted no, 16 Democrats who abstained, and one who called in sick.
Earth Alert contacted the offices of each of those Democratic Assembly members to ask why. Most did not respond.
Of those who did, the sentiment expressed on the floor by Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) was that “prohibiting certain communications between commissioners will limit their abilities to effectively do their jobs.” Cooper said that he feels that being open to meetings outside of public hearings is part of his job.
Well put, Assemblyman Cooper! But it’s hard to banish the thought that perhaps some of these legislators were also considering the possibility of future campaign donations from the bill’s opponents, which included development and business interests, as well as labor unions—all potentially major campaign contributors.
The bill’s failure has now been trumped by a lawsuit asking damages from individual commissioners for their ex-parte communications on projects they voted to approve. It will be interesting to see what happens with the lawsuit.
And meanwhile, the commission is conducting its search for a new executive director to righteously direct commission staff while dealing with the strong personalities of 12 commissioners and hundreds of project proponents and opponents.
Stay tuned for the next episode of the ongoing saga on whether the coast will remain the treasured geographic soul of California, or ultimately be turned into a theme park for the wealthy!
Earth Alert’s documentary, Heroes of the Coast, on the establishment of the Coastal Commission is available for free online at earthalert.org.
Janet Bridgers is the founder of Earth Alert, a nonprofit working to educate the public about environmental issues. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.