Determining the Fate of California’s Coast

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

Four New California Coastal Commissioners Bring Fresh Perspective to Key Government Panel.

There are four new members of the California Coastal Commission this summer. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon appointed public members Linda Escalante and Caryl Hart in May; the Senate Rules Committee chose North Central Coast Representative Catherine (Katie) Rice in June; and Governor Gavin Newsom appointed North Coast Representative Mike Wilson in July.

The four newest appointees join Effie Turnbull-Sanders, Donnie Brownsey, Sara Aminadeh, Erik Howell, Robert Uranga, Carole Groom, Vice-Chair Steve Padilla, and Chair Dayna Bochco on the commission that determines the fate of California’s coast.

The commission was tarnished in 2016, when five of the 12-member commission were found guilty of ethics violations and fined by a judge. Coastal activists are heartened that the new appointees have a strong environmental track record.

Linda Escalante, a Coastal Commission alternate before being appointed as a full commissioner, is the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Southern California Legislative Director, and has a record of advocating for clean water, clean air, and environmental justice. 

Caryl Hart is the recently retired director of Sonoma County Parks and former chair of the California State Parks Commission. She is a founding member of LandPaths, a non-profit resource conservation organization.

Catherine Rice is a member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors and has served on the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (AQMD), Marin County Open Space District, and Marin County Housing Authority.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and has a background in ecological engineering.

The California Coastal Commission has 12 voting members and three non-voting members. Six of the voting members are “public members,” six are local elected officials who come from different coastal districts. The secretaries of the Natural Resources Agency, the State Transportation Agency, and the Chair of the State Lands Commission serve as non-voting members.

Commissioners receive $100 per meeting and $12.50 per hour in preparation for each meeting not to exceed eight hours per meeting, and actual and necessary expenses. Those expenses include meeting for three days each month in a different coastal city. The commission and its staff travel up and down the coast throughout the year.

The commission, established by the 1972 Coastal Act, and later made permanent in 1976, enforces the Coastal Act and oversees the use of land and water in the coastal zone, which comprises the entire California seashore, ranging from 1000 yards inland from the mean high tide in urban areas, to as much as five miles inland in biologically significant areas like the Santa Monica Mountains.

All development activities—construction of buildings, division of land, and any plan that changes land use intensity or public access to coastal waters—requires a coastal permit from either the Coastal Commission or the local government.

By law, all local governments within the coastal zone must adopt their own Local Coastal Program (LCP). Once this program is approved by the Coastal Commission, a city or county can issue its own coastal permits, but some projects can still be appealed to the Coastal Commission, a tool often used by activists and neighbors to contest a controversial project as a court of last resort.

 

WHEN GOVERNMENT DIDN’T WORK 

The Commission is quasi-judicial and is supposed to be independent. Coastal Commission approval of U2 musician David Evan’s controversial five-mansion development in the Santa Monica Mountains in 2015 raised questions about the independence of some members of the panel. Five commissioners were sued for failing to disclose their private contact with rock-star-turned-developer Evans, better known as The Edge.

In 2016, Commissioner Erik Howell and former commissioners Steve Kinsey, Martha McClure, Mark Vargas and Wendy Mitchell were sued by the watchdog group Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, which alleged that they deliberately concealed private meetings with developers and other lobbyists for the Edge project. By law, coastal commissioners must disclose all ex-parte communications within seven days. The five were found guilty. They received fines and were ordered to pay $959,307 in court costs.

Howell remains on the commission. He is a member of the Pismo Beach City Council and an attorney, and he had his California State Bar license suspended for 60 days earlier this year in an unrelated lawsuit, for professional negligence and fraud in a civil case.

According to the Coastal Commission website, The Coastal Act includes specific policies that address issues such as shoreline public access and recreation, lower cost visitor accommodations, terrestrial and marine habitat protection, visual resources, landform alteration, agricultural lands, commercial fisheries, industrial uses, water quality, offshore oil and gas development, transportation, development design, power plants, ports, and public works. 

The commission is responsible for some of the most valuable real estate on earth. That is a lot of power, and it’s why the commissioners who wield it need to be above reproach, especially at a time when the coast is facing the threat of sea level rise, offshore oil drilling, and increasing development pressures.

Speaker Rendon summed up the issued the panel faces when he made his recent appointment: “At a time when California’s coast is under attack by the federal government, California needs people devoted not just to preserving the coast but to making it accessible to communities that have historically been shut out,” Rendon said.

For more information on the Coastal Commission visit: https://www.coastal.ca.gov.

Photo by Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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