By David Ewing
With the recent defeat of Assembly Bill 976, our legislature has once again failed to give the California Coastal Commission the tool it most needs to protect our coast and our access to it: fines.
The California Coastal Act became law in 1976. By guaranteeing public access, the Coastal Act gives all of us a stake in protecting this spectacular natural treasure. However, for all its protections on paper, the Coastal Act has an Achilles heel: enforcement.
The Coastal Commission is under-funded and under-empowered. Most Coastal Act violations are never even dealt with. Its enforcement staff of 12 people to cover 1,100 miles, acts only when someone files a complaint – when a beachgoer is confronted by private security guards, or a resident wakes up to see the hillside next door being bulldozed.
The commission’s cease and desist orders are often ignored. It has no practical way to enforce them, short of getting the state’s attorney general to take violators to court. That may work for a few big cases, but it’s a bit like telling a traffic cop he can’t write speeding tickets, he can only sue the speeders. The result has been a logjam of complaints dragged out for years – and all the while, we the public remain shut out of our own beaches.
In 2008, the state legislative analyst finally recommended giving the Coastal Commission the authority to levy fines, like nearly all other state boards, commissions and agencies. The purpose, like the cop writing traffic tickets, is not to punish; it’s to deter scofflaws, remedy violations, and reduce the caseload to a manageable level, all of which would save the taxpayers money.
The pushback was immediate. The Pacific Legal Foundation and lobbyists for building and agribusiness tarred the Coastal Commission as an overreaching bully that would abuse this power.  Looking back, three simple facts show this was theater of the absurd:
1) Over the last 10 years, the Coastal Commission has filed only four lawsuits.
2) Not one of its many penalty orders since 1992 has been overturned in court. Never. Not one.
3) Tickets could be challenged in court.
The opponents’ strategy, however, has been effective. Almost every year since 2008, some legislator has introduced a bill giving the commission the power to fine. Every time, it goes down in defeat – a sort of coastal Groundhog Day.
Every year, the commission’s backlog of open cases has grown longer. In 2008 there were 1,200 cases pending. Five years later, it’s up to 1,944.
This year, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins brought AB 976, with safeguards against abuse. The Assembly passed it. The Senate passed it with amendments. The amended version went back to the Assembly – and lost.
As Angelenos, we take the brunt of this loss. About a third of the open violations are for obstructing public access, and almost 700 are near Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains; so we’re the ones being kept out.
Most cases, like forged “NO PARKING” signs or a locked gate across a beach entrance, don’t rate a lawsuit any more than a speeding violation would. The point is to discourage bad behavior, not to clog the courts.  Yet collectively, they prevent us from getting to our beaches.  Fines would fix this.
Someone will bring another bill next year. If we want it to pass, we need to start raising awareness now. Most people had no idea there was a bill called AB 976, so legislators felt free to vote their lobbyists’ wishes. By next year, we should make sure they all know we want our beaches back.
David Ewing is a Venice activist and member of the Venice Action Alliance.