The California Coastal Commission is in the news again, providing fresh evidence that its problems should be existential.
The 12-member commission dates from Proposition 20, the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, a ballot initiative in 1972. The Commission was supposed to be temporary but the legislature welded it in place with the California Coastal Act of 1976. The Commission now oversees planning, access, and development along California's 1,100-mile coastline, an area that includes 15 counties and more than 100 cities. Even so, the Commission is often overlooked, for good reason.
Californians do not vote for Commission members. The governor appoints four, the Senate Rules Committee selects four, and so does the Speaker of the Assembly, who recently tried to extend his reach. When commissioners cannot attend a meeting, alternates take their place. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez tried to dictate who the alternates would be, something state attorneys ruled he was not authorized to do. This gambit came days before a vote on a major project.
The Speaker and his defenders denied that this had anything to do with the attempt to dictate the alternates. But it does recall past problems with a commission that PRI environmental studies fellow Steven Hayward pointed out, combines "bureaucratic ideology of near-Stalinist zeal with corruption of the worst kind."
Consider former commissioner Mark Nathanson, appointed by then Speaker Willie Brown. When movie stars wanted to remodel their Malibu estates, Nathanson hit them up for money. Some didn't play along, and in 1992 Nathanson was convicted of racketeering and wound up serving five years in prison. It remains no secret that those who contribute heavily to key politicians hold the inside track when it comes to approvals. As for the Stalinist regulatory zeal, examples are legion.
The California Coastal Commission barred a Catholic retreat center in Santa Clara from paving 17 spaces on a parking lot that already existed, on the grounds that monarch butterflies might find a home in nearby trees. The commission quashed attempts by a marine environmental group to create much needed kelp beds on the ocean bottom with recycled materials. Newport Beach officials had approved the project and a site had been leased from the Department of Fish and Game.
The Commission assumes that the people and their elected representatives in 15 counties are incapable of protecting the coast. If not for the Commission, the legend goes, the coast would become one giant strip mall, golf course, and junkyard. This could not be more wrong.
Coastal residents remain notoriously anti-growth. As part-time coastal resident Steven Hayward confirms, the ethos is not so much NIMBY (not in my back yard), but BANANA -- "Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere or Near Anyone." This, plus the "cease and desist" power of the Commission, is the reason the California coast has become an exclusive enclave.
The Coastal Commission was a classic attempt to solve environmental problems by adding absorbent new layers of government sediment, through which taxpayer dollars must trickle down. The Commission proves the adage that government bodies are easy to create but hard to eliminate. Former Governor George Deukmejian's administration tried but failed to do away with the Commission. In late 2002, an appeals court upheld a ruling that the panel was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers. In 2005 the California Supreme Court let the Commission stand. And the mischief continues, as shown by the Speaker's attempt to stack the unelected body.
Unaccountable, heavy-handed, and prone to corruption, the California Coastal Commission should be eliminated. This would not launch a stampede of development but it would reduce corruption, lower costs, and restore the rights of local residents to govern their own affairs. Removing a BANANA republic in our midst would also set a positive example for other states, something that California has not done well since the tax revolt of the late 1970s.
K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]
K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues.