By Gary Walker
One of the most influential commissions in the state could soon join its fellow agencies in having stronger regulatory authority over its domain.
The California Coastal Commission, if Assembly Bill (AB) 976 is passed, would join other state commissions empowered to take administrative action against violators through penalties and fines.
The commission’s mission is to “protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.”
The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins (D- San Diego), has the support of environmental and conservation organizations throughout the state. It is opposed by business and agriculture groups, which argue that the ability to levy fines will create a “bounty hunter” situation between the commission and violators.
The California Chamber of Commerce says AB 976 “inappropriately expands the Coastal Commission’s enforcement by allowing the commission to impose administrative civil penalties and incentivizes the imposition of fines and penalties at the expense of due process that occurs in the judicial system.”
Currently the only way for the Coastal Commission to act against those who violate the California Coastal Act is to take them to court.
Sarah Christie, legislative analyst for the commission, says the Coastal Commission feels that it is a “no-brainer” for the body commission to have administrative authority, as does virtually every other state commission. That is one reason, she believes, why those who do not comply with the Coastal Act are currently emboldened to act in an unlawful manner because they realize there is no true enforcement power.
“That’s why our enforcement program is extremely inefficient and bordering on dysfunctional,” said Christie.
Not all environmentalists are in favor of AB 976. Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey, thinks the public has done a good job of keeping certain violators honest without the commission having regulatory authority.
“The Coastal Act has a citizen provision in it that I fear will be left meaningless if the fine abilities are passed,” Hanscom said. “And I predict that means the commission staff’s past practices of granting after-the-fact permits will be preceding at an even faster pace.
“If this bill were to explicitly prevent after-the-fact permits, it might be more palatable.”
Hanscom, who has testified before the commission on numerous occasions, thinks elements other than protecting the state’s coastlines often affect the body’s rulings.
“Some of the best enforcement solutions have happened because of the citizen enforcement provision of the Coastal Act. The Coastal Commission is far too political of a body to be truly excellent at enforcement on its own,” Hanscom asserted.
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks feels the opposite way. “I would love the California Coastal Commission to be able to levy fines on the illegally installed ‘No parking’ signs and red curb paint, also rampant in Venice,” said Lucks, who has lived in the coastal community for nearly four decades.
Christie said now is the time to give the Coastal Commission the power to issue citations and fines. In 2008, there were 1,260 violations of the Coastal Act. In 2013, that number has jumped to 1,944.
“Violations are coming in at a much faster rate than we expected,” she said. “We’re in a constant state of triage in the enforcement division.”
Several local environmental organizations are waiting to see if the commission will take any action against Playa Capital, which installed a drainage system without permits in the Ballona Wetlands. The drainage pipes were discovered earlier this year and the commission sent the developer a letter apprising it of an apparent violation of the Coastal Act.
Lucks said in her community there are other actions taken by residents and developers that might not occur if violators knew the commission was empowered to levy fines.
“There are some developments in Venice that were built illegally and once they are done, they are done. I would love for the California Coastal Commission to do something about it and also the illegally closed beach and boardwalk,” she said. “If the Coastal Commission had ‘teeth,’ people would be less willing to take chances trying to get away with illegal activities.”
David Ewing, another Venice resident, agrees with Lucks. “The lack of enforcement invites violators to fight citations or ignore them,” he said.
In Venice, The Argonaut reported that all of the street furniture that had been installed in that beachside community in recent years was done without coastal development permits. Street furniture is a term used to describe objects and pieces of equipment installed on streets and roads for various purposes, such as bus benches and kiosks, public restrooms and waste receptacles.
All development, which includes street furniture, within the coastal zone must receive a coastal permit.
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey) supports AB 976. “I believe that it gives the California Coastal Commission the additional tools that it needs to enforce the laws governing our coasts,” said the senator, whose district also includes Venice. “The Coastal Commission has generally done a good job of protecting our beaches and coastal areas.”
Christie said the bill could be voted on in the state Senate anytime within the next month. Last month, it passed a Senate committee hearing. AB 976 cleared the Assembly in May.
Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, whose 11th District includes a large swath of coastline, including Venice, could not be reached for comment.
Assembly bill would give Coastal Commission power to issue fines
By Gary Walker