Tough Times, Big Choices for Coastal Commission

      (CN) — The California Coastal Commission, formed more than four decades ago, was a visionary plan ahead of its time aimed at protecting the state’s coastline. On Earth Day, Courthouse News takes a look at how the commission was formed and some of the major decisions it faces this year amidt the controversial ousting of its popular executive director Charles Lester.
     With roots as a movement of the people, the commission was established by voters with the passage of Proposition 20 in 1972 during the “Save Our Coast” movement, where Californians rallied against development that cut off public access to the state’s coastline.
     The commission was later made permanent by state Legislature through the adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976. The commission plans and regulates land-use decisions in and along the California coast, as well as any development decisions that may affect water in the coastal zone, according to the commission’s website.
     In addition to protecting the coastline and water quality, the commission also ensures public access to California’s beaches and shorelines for recreation by ensuring lower-cost visitor accommodations and carrying out an extensive public education campaign that includes annual statewide coastal cleanup events.
     Composed of 12 voting members appointed by the governor, Senate Rules Committee and the Speaker of the Assembly, the commission includes six local elected officials and six members of the public. There are also three nonvoting members representing the Resources Agency, California State Transportation Agency and State Lands Commission.
     The commission regulates a diverse terrain that comprises 1,100 miles — an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. San Francisco is not included in the coastline regulated by the commission through enforcement of the Coastal Act, however, and is instead regulated by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
     In its 44th year as a regulatory agency, the commission is experiencing some growing pains following a controversial leadership change and concerns from the public and lawmakers over how the change will affect big decisions facing the commission this year and in years to come.
     Following the unpopular ouster of Lester this past February through a secret vote, the commission has faced lawsuits and scrutiny from lawmakers and environmental activists who claim it got rid of Lester as a concession to developers who want approval for projects along the coast.
     Several lawmakers have also called for changes to the commission. An Assembly bill that would have given local governments the power to enforce the Coastal Act rather than the commission was shot down Monday.
     The commission will now get to work on hiring a new leader, with calls from the public and environmental groups for the hiring process to involve input from the public.
     Whether the commission is headed toward a more development-friendly path will be tested next month when it will consider plans for the 401-acre Banning Ranch project in Newport Beach — a residential and retail development which aims to build 895 houses, a 75-room resort and 75,000 square feet of retail space.
     Before his departure, Lester said the developers of the billion-dollar project ignored commission staff recommendations to orient their project in a less ecologically invasive manner. Other commission members who support the Banning Ranch project claim the wetlands at the center of the development debate are man-made and degraded to the point where they might not be worth protecting.
     While the commission faces some major decisions on coastal projects that will be decided in coming months, it did manage to dodge a fight this week with SeaWorld San Diego over a proposed $100 million expansion of its orca tanks.
     On Tuesday, the park said it was dropping its plan to expand its orca tanks in San Diego, an anticipated move following the company’s announcement last month it would no longer breed the whales. Scrapping the project means SeaWorld will also seek dismissal of a lawsuit it filed last year in response to the commission’s conditional approval of the Blue World expansion project, which would have required SeaWorld to stop breeding orcas.
     The next commission meeting, during which it will consider the Banning Ranch project, is scheduled for May 11-13 in Newport Beach.

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