September 30, 1996 - From the September, 1996 issue

At Issue: Coastal Protection & Property Rights: Two Fresh and Dissimilar Perspectives

The State Coastal Commission is charged with protecting California’s 1,100-mile coastline from overdevelopment. For the first time in the Commission’s history, the 12-member commission is dominated by eight Republican appointees, as a result of the GOP takeover of the state Assembly. In July, members of the Republican majority forced the Commission into the media spotlight when they attempted to fire the Agency’s longtime Executive Director, Peter Douglas. Although the attempt to oust Douglas failed, the debate illustrated a fundamental rift within the Commission—between coastline property owner’s rights, and the public’s right to coastal access. 

As the debate continues to intensify, The Planning Report is pleased to present side-by-side interviews with two recent appointees to the Commission. Sara Wan is the founder of MW Technologies, which uses new technology to solve environment problems, and was appointed by the Senate Rules Committee. Arnold Steinberg is a strategist, pollster and author; and was appointed by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle.


Sara Wan: “I don’t have an agenda to pursue any particular issues. I view my role as trying to uphold the principles and law contained in the Coastal Act.”

Sara Wan

In a recent article in the Orange County edition of the L.A. Times, Annie Notthoff of the National Resources Defense Council, referring to the Coastal Commission's recent move against its Executive Director, is quoted as follows: 'This is nothing less than a full frontal attack on the California Coastal Protection Program.' As a new commissioner, would you like to address her contention?

I agree with her statement. The Commission clearly has the authority to remove the Executive Director—he does serve at our pleasure. The problem here was the underlying reason. The new commissioners clearly did not have the experience, after only one month, to evaluate him. However, the only apparent reason was that this was a mechanism for the new majority to get at the independence of the staff, to threaten the staff, and to make changes in the coastal program.

I don't think it was just Peter Douglas that engendered the public response we received. He became a symbol of the reason why this attack was taking place. The issue became much larger than just the Commission removing an Executive Director. It clearly went to what people perceived as an attack on coastal protection.

Her quote concludes as follows: ‘This is a battle for the heart and soul of the California coast.’ Is there a battle going on within the Commission since its composition changed; and is it over the 'heart and soul' of the California coast? 

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There is a battle going on for the heart and soul of the coast. It started, when the new Commissioners joined the panel, with a frontal attack on the Commission and the program by attempting to fire Peter Douglas. That didn't work. 

We now sense that the management audit that is in process will be a back-door mechanism to change the way the Commission does business. This back-door process will allow changes in the program that could not be made through the legislature. I believe this is a battle for whether we have any coastal protection at all.

As a new Coastal Commissioner, what is your governing philosophy and mission vis-a-vis the commission? What are your objectives? 

I am a strong believer in coastal protection and in upholding the Coastal Act as it was conceived by the public. I also believe in property rights. I don't think that there is any member of the Commission that doesn't understand the need to balance property rights with other issues. The whole purpose of the Coastal Act is to balance regional and statewide interests against local interests as well as to protect the public's right.

It is important to me to maintain the intent of the original Coastal Act. That is what I hope to accomplish. 

Your fellow Commissioner Arnold Steinberg was challenged by The Los Angeles Times for his views on the public's legal right to use the state's coastline. Do you have a different approach? 

I have a very strong commitment to public access. 

Remember that the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission are the direct result of a public mandate. One of the primary driving issues was the public's desire to be able to access the beach. The beach below the mean high-tide and the ocean belong to the public—not just to the people who are lucky enough to have money to buy property along the coast.

The ocean and beach belong to everyone, as long as it belongs to the public, the public should have a right to get to it. I have a very strong commitment to protecting that right, which by the way is protected by the State Constitution and the Coastal Act, laws we have sworn to uphold. 

There appears to be a split within the Coastal Commission between the staff and the Commissioners. Douglas Wheeler, State Resources Secretary, says that there is a crisis of competence in the agency. Is there a crisis or is that a overstated, provocative phrase?

I don't think there is a crisis of competence in the agency—there is a crisis of confidence in Mr. Wheeler. Peter Douglas refused to go along with the deal that Mr. Wheeler cut over the Balsa Chica. It is inappropriate for the Executive Director to get involved in what any group—one side vs any other side—is doing in the way of cutting deals. 

The Director's job is to interpret the Coastal Act in an unbiased and professional manner, and the Commissioners have the right to make their own decision about whether they agree with staff's interpretation of the Coastal Act. He is not supposed to be party to backroom deals, and I found that personally offensive. 

How will the average citizen, who brings a matter before the Coastal Commission staff and ultimately the Board, notice a difference in the new board as opposed to the commission a year ago? 

The statements by some of the Commissioners have already made it clear that this new Commission wants to be "applicant friendly." The Commission wants to pass through any development that comes before them, without adding constraints. I suspect that the applicants will be much happier. If staff recommends changes, and the applicant doesn't agree with staff and takes it to the Commission, the Commission will side with the applicant. We're seeing that happen already. As for the general public, they probably will find the Commission far less willing to uphold the coastal act mandate that requires "maximum public participation". 

Are there any other issues besides land use issues within the jurisdiction of the Commission that you are interested in pursuing as a Commissioner? Areas that you would like to focus on?

I don’t have an agenda to pursue any particular issues. I view my role as trying to uphold the principles and law contained in the Coastal Act. 

However, there are some issues that are more important to me. One such issue is energy use and oil exploration on and off our coastline. Other issues that I am particularly concerned about are the protection of natural resources and the public's right to access the beach and view the coast. 

When the Republican Congress tried to deal with environmental issues this past session there was a bit of a political backlash. What is your sense of how the politics will play out as a result of actions taken by the new majority Coastal Commission? 

The Republicans should have learned their lesson from what happened in Washington D.C. The general public—and I include Republican citizens with that—care about environmental issues. The Republican leadership misjudged the depth of the public's support for environmental protection. In this state, when you are dealing with protection of the coast, the sentiment goes even deeper. 

I think that the average California citizen, particularly those that live along the coast, treasure the coast and want to see it protected from rampant development. If Proposition 20, which eventually became the Coastal Act, was put on the ballot today, it would win by an even greater margin than it did in 1972. 

Most people understand that there is a need to balance development interests with environmental protection. I believe that all of this will translate directly into a vote at the polls to change the Assembly leadership. 

What accomplishments, a year from now, would you liked to be known for? How would you like to be evaluated? 

I would hope that the public will view my record and my efforts as a real attempt to protect the public's interests along the coast. I also hope that I will be successful; but I am one of twelve, and my voting record may not have a significant impact. It clearly depends on who the other commissioners are. 

Arnold Steinberg

In a recent article in the Orange County edition of the LA. Times, Annie Nodoff of the National Resources Defense Council, referring to the Coastal Commission's recent move against its Executive Director, is quoted as follows: 'This is nothing less than a full frontal attack on the California Coastal Protection Program.' As a new commissioner, would you like to address her contention?

The environmentalists' version of the industrial complex is simply trying to rally its troops, raise money, and stay in business. They have to look for somebody that they can label as a frightening entity. They do this in order for their organization to raise more funds. 

I would never have put the Peter Douglas matter on the agenda because it was premature at that point unless the commissioners were prepared to have a new executive director. I did not choose to put it on, it was the acting chairman, who finally became chairman. 

There is a great deal of confusion between an almost ideological obsession with what is perceived to be an environmental measure and what simply is a personnel matter. When somebody has been someplace for ten or eleven years, it is perfectly reasonable and fair for a change. There is a great deal of confusion in labeling a personnel matter as some sort of frontal assault on the Coastal Act.

Her quote concludes as follows: ‘This is a battle for the heart and soul of the California coast.’ Is there a battle going on within the Commission since its composition changed; and is it over the 'heart and soul' of the California coast? 

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Not at all. The heart and the soul of the coast was determined a long time ago. What has been in play is a perception of some individual about how they think the coastal act should inhibit particular kind of uses of property. 

Many Californians do not realize the Coastal Act has been interpreted to extend as much as five miles inland. People who make the kind of statements that you have cited are people who know enough to clarify what has been done, but they have chosen not to do so. 

The term 'coastal protection' is really not well understood at all. The coastal resources ought to be made available to all Californians to the extent those resources represent State land and government resources. I am not sure that objective is served. For example, when you have land a block or two from the beach that a developer cannot build on, what does that have to do with access to the coast, unless it would inhibit access? 

As a new Coastal Commissioner, what is your governing philosophy and mission vis-a-vis the commission? What are your objectives? 

We ought to try to restore some confidence in the commission. Some of the court decisions—notably the Nollan decision—have correctly led some people to conclude that the Coastal Commission has acted lawlessly in the past. It is a quasi-judicial agency that is more guided by the quasi than the judicial.

We need more user-friendly commission meetings. Our job is to process applications consistent with the Coastal Act. The approach of the commission has often made it as difficult as possible for somebody to get something through the commission. That is the wrong approach. 

We have to look at due process. I have attended several hearings now and they simply are too long and not friendly enough to the public. I do not see that much of a relationship between protection of the coast and what happens in the meetings. I see a great deal of arbitrariness that needs to be changed. 

Quoting from another L.A. Times article, "Arnold Steinberg once tangled with the commission over his own development plans and can barely disguise his contempt for the varied notion that the public has the legal right to use the state's coast line." Please take this opportunity to respond to the accuracy of this assessment. 

That is their extrapolation of the word 'coastline'. What is at issue here is that if you have a coastline which involves state land and it affects public property and access, it can be reasonably inferred that access ought to be preserved. 

If on the other hand, you have a situation where each time someone tries to use their private property and the commission uses the principle of access to exact some kind of contribution, that is wrong. That is the kind of situation we saw in the Nollan decision. 

On the one hand, I do indeed have contempt for the kind of lawless behavior of the Coastal Commission that was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. On the other hand, I do not have contempt for the idea that coastal land is a scarce resource and that the government, at least in the short term, may be uniquely capable of protecting that resource or at least access to it. 

There appears to be a split within the Coastal Commission between the staff and the Commissioners. Douglas Wheeler, State Resources Secretary, says that there is a crisis of confidence in the agency. Is there a crisis or is that a overstated, provocative phrase? 

It is a provocative phrase. I do not know Mr. Wheeler, but I infer that he probably tried to work some compromises out with Mr. Douglas. Having failed to work out what he thought were reasonable compromises, he had a crisis of confidence. 

There is an ongoing crisis of confidence in the sense that while there are some very good, competent and dedicated staff members at the Coastal Commission, there is a feeling among people that the staff can run roughshod over applicants. 

I see this all the time when we have applications come before us where the applicant has already agreed to major concessions. It almost seems like a communist show trial where you get voluntary confessions. What we really need to do is give applicants a coastal commission version of the Miranda Rights. 

How will the average citizen, who brings a matter before the Coastal Commission staff and ultimately the Board, notice a difference in the new board as opposed to the commission a year ago? 

A difference will be noticed if the applicant takes the proactive, courageous approach to come before the full commission. 

Too many people think it is business as usual, so they agree to concessions on demand of the staff. By the time a matter comes before us, that applicant has already agreed to major concessions. Some people are not going to notice a change unless they go the full mile, and personally come before the Commission.

Within the jurisdiction of the Commission, are there any other issues besides land use issues that you are interested in pursuing as a Commissioner? What other areas would you like to focus on? 

My principle would be getting back to local government. L.A. County and the City of Malibu have never approved a local coastal plan. We have a State agency dealing with the size of your garage. In this respect, I sympathize with Mr. Douglas and staff by agreeing that the City of Malibu and L.A. County ought to pay substantial fees to the commission for doing their work. 

I would also like the commission to actually recommend limiting its jurisdiction. They really should not go five miles inland. We should get back to truth in labeling. Most people think that the coastal commission has something to do with the coast, and that is what it ought to do. 

When the Republican Congress tried to deal with environmental issues this past session there was a bit or a political backlash. Do you perceive such a backlash possible in California? 

All of these sorts of issues cause problems because you cannot justify remedial action or reforms if you do not lay the educational groundwork. Too often the coastal commission is depicted as some sort of "savior of the coast" and that obscures some of the reforms that need to be implemented. 

A great deal of educational effort is needed. For example, there are a lot of people who have been victims of arbitrariness by the Coastal Commission, so it is hard for them to come forward. You need a full-blown effort to get a full and complete airing of the record, before you take corrective action. 

What would be the thrust of the other side? 

The thrust of the other side would be to depict any reform as having the most profound, dire, long term and irrevocable consequences to the environment. Instead, there are many people who could testify to the excesses of the commission but they often are reluctant to come forward, yet they need to be heard. 

What accomplishments, a year from now, would you liked to be known for? How would you like to be evaluated? 

What I would like to be measured by is a Coastal Commission that is considered a model of due process and responsive decision making that acts consistently. I would like to see the hearings shorter, dramatic cuts in the paperwork, and have hearings where the audience can understand what is going on instead of having to hire a lawyer to translate the proceedings. 

I would like to see the commission really do what other parts of government have done, which is to try to start retrenching and limiting its jurisdiction, so that when it really does cry wolf people will think it is credible. 

I would like a fundamental assessment of basic assumptions and questionable interpretations at the Coastal Act. Are we preserving the Coast or enriching people with political connections? 

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