Just as this issue of CityBeat is hitting the streets, the California Coastal Commission is meeting with its attorneys and top-level staff, deciding their next move. Last week, a state appellate court ruled that the commission's very makeup is unconstitutional. The way its 12 members are appointed and removed from office, the court said, is a violation of the concept of separation of powers.
There's been much concern among environmentalists along the coast about what the court was going to do. Some feared that an unfavorable ruling could strip the commission of its value. But the way it turned out, the ruling might actually be a positive development. It all depends on how the governor and the Legislature respond.
A little history: The Coastal Commission, created by the state Coastal Act, has been around since the 1970s. It was deemed necessary because development interests had been having their way with the coastline, and local governments generally weren't doing anything about it. Under the law, 12 commissioners were appointed-four by the state Senate Committee on Rules, four by the speaker of the Assembly and four by the governor. Its mission would be to regulate coastal development and enforce coastal laws. Over the years, many a battle played out at commission meetings and behind the scenes with environmentalists and coastal-access advocates on one side and developers and wealthy property-rights hawks on the other. No doubt about it, the Coastal Commission has been one serious hot political potato.
A couple years ago, Ron Zumbrun, a longtime opponent of the commission and founder of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a strident and well-funded property-rights advocacy group, sued the commission on behalf of a company that was cited for illegally building an artificial reef. Last week's ruling was a validation of Zumbrun's beef-or at least a small part of it.
Zumbrun's suit had eight causes of action against the Coastal Commission. The court tossed seven of them. That's why one coastal commissioner, Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, this week was hailing the ruling as a victory for environmentalists. He noted that the ruling leaves the Coastal Act, the Holy Grail of coastal protection, alone. The court, he told CityBeat, spent much energy discussing one particular issue: the law allows the powerful political leaders who appoint commissioners to remove them at any time, with or without good cause. Nava repeated what commission Executive Director Peter Douglas has been telling reporters all week: the simple remedy is to just have commissioners serve fixed terms.
The appellate court was right. The appointment and removal process paves the way for unhealthy politics. A developer, for example, contributes money to the governor's campaign and later asks the commission for permission to build a housing tract near the coast. The governor tells his appointees on the commission that he'd sure like to see that permit approved. Fearing removal from their sweet seats on the commission, the commissioners find a way to justify a yes vote on the permit, even though housing on the coast would further block public access to the beach.
Of course, the political-pressure door swings the other way too. An environmentalist-minded Assembly speaker could exert the same influence and get in the way of reasonable coastal development-permit applications.
This is why we think the ruling was a step in the right direction. Commissioners shouldn't have to work in such a pressurized climate.
But, as Nava said the other day, the ruling also might allow someone to open Pandora's Box. The governor and the Legislature might meddle too much and do damage to the Coastal Act, which is for the most part healthy-it just needs minor tinkering to pass muster with the court.
Officials in Sacramento should do nothing other than fix the commissioners' terms in office. That likely won't be enough for Zumbrun and friends, so if they want to fight for more reform, let them. The ball's in their court.