The state Coastal Commission did a better job protecting the ocean and coastline in 2018, according to a new report that identifies votes on Orange County issues as the panel’s best and worst actions of the year.
The 2018 Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card was issued Monday by ActCoastal.org, a coalition of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, Los Angeles’ Environment California and Wildcoast/Costa Salvaje, which has offices on both sides of the Mexican border, in Imperial Beach and Ensenada.
“The Commission’s most significant vote of 2018 involved a landmark enforcement decision requiring, for the first time, the removal of an illegal seawall,” states the report card of what went down with a Laguna Beach home that was built in the 1950s and received an emergency permit for a seawall in 2015.
Seawalls were originally built to protect property from encroaching surf, but they are controversial because they are often erected on public sand, which has become a dwindling resource thanks to beach erosion. As a result, the commission has permitted seawalls for development constructed before the Coastal Act went into effect in 1976 but has been stingy with allowing them for projects after that year.
Investors who resided adjacent to the Laguna Beach home purchased the property and applied for a permit to reinforce the seawall and do a major remodel of the structure.
“The Commission approved the seawall permit, but made it clear that the seawall could not be used to protect new development or a major remodel, to which the owner’s agent agreed,” states the ActCoastal.org report card. “The owner then deliberately proceeded to obtain local permits for a major–almost 100 percent–remodel in violation of the terms of their seawall permit. When notified by Commission staff that the seawall permit was no longer valid and the seawall had to be removed, the owners refused to comply.”
The Commission agreed with its staff in issuing a cease and desist order that included removing the seawall, although commissioners imposed a $1 million administrative fine as opposed to the $500,000 penalty staff had recommended. Either is still less than the $8 million maximum fine allowed by law.
“Fortunately, the Commission has the mandate and the authority to fine private property owners who disregard the law,” states the report card. “Every permitting and enforcement decision the Commission makes today will ultimately decide the fate of California’s beaches in the future. On this matter, the Commission stood firmly on the side of the law, the public, and the next generation of California’s beachgoers.”
Not so much when it comes to the commission’s handling of the City of San Clemente’s Land Use Program (LUP) update, according to ActCoastal.org. San Clemente was the first local government to certify its LUP update, which unlocks access to state grant funds for making a Local Coastal Program (LCP) consistent with the Coastal Act–with special emphasis on planning for sea-level rise and climate change.
“Unfortunately, the San Clemente LCP set a poor precedent on a key issue–the definition of ‘existing development,’” states the report card. “The City interpreted ‘existing development’ to mean any development in existence at the present time, whereas Commission staff recommended defining ‘existing development’ as development that was constructed before the Coastal Act went into effect in 1976.”
In other words, ActCoastal.org opposes the commission’s leniency with San Clemente for the same reason it hails the panel’s removal of the Laguna Beach seawall. “The Commission’s failure to hold the City to the long-standing definition of ‘existing development’ risks creation of a dangerous loophole and precedent that threatens the future of our state’s beaches,” reads the report card.
While city councils, county boards and other local entities make land-use decisions, the Coastal Commission has been in place since 1972 to ensure projects conform to the Coastal Act, which protects, conserves, restores and enhances the environment of the vast California coastline. This has sparked some outrage when the commission overrules a local land-use decision, and some have even called the state panel illegal. But it keeps plugging along with its 12 members meeting monthly and reviewing up to 1,000 projects annually.
The governor, the state Assembly speaker and the California Senate Rules Committee each appoint four members to the commission, with two coming from the general public and two being elected officials. The state is broken up into six regions, from San Diego to the North Coast, and each region must be represented by an elected official on the panel. There are also three, non-voting ex-officio members.
For the report card, ActCoastal.org examined the pro-conservation votes by each commissioner and found that the overall average score hit 88 percent in 2018, which was up from 71 percent the year before and 65 percent in 2016.
Of the elected commissioners, Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga, who has represented the South Coast region since being appointed by the Senate Rules Committee to the commission in 2012, scored the highest at 95 percent.
North Coast representative Ryan Sundberg, who left his Humboldt County Board of Supervisors seat in December for the private sector, scored the lowest at 67 percent, according to the report card.
Jerry Brown appointed Sundberg to the commission in 2017, the same year the then-governor made Sacramento lobbyist Donne Brownsey a selection plucked from the public. She scored 95 percent on the report card, as did Senate Rules Committee public-sector pick Sara Aminzadeh, a Bay Area attorney who has held key legal and leadership positions with Water Deeply, Climate One, Pisces Foundation and the California Coastkeeper Alliance.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.