June 2, 2000 - From the June, 2000 issue

Gov. Davis' Appointee to Coastal Commission Speaks of Balance

The California Coastal Commission affects how one of California's most distinctive resources-its coastline-is shaped. TPR was pleased to sit down with Coastal Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill and have her bring our readers up-to-date on what has been before the Commission since her appointment in 1999 and where she feels the Commission is heading. She shared with us her perspective on issues such as the current conflict with the U.S. Navy, urban runoff, and how recent court cases will affect the Commission's review of development along the coast

Cynthia McClain-Hill

Cynthia, Gov. Davis appointed you to the Coastal Commission in February 1999. Give our readers a sense of your tenure to date? What contribution would you like to be making; what value-added do you bring to the current mix of commission members?

The Coastal Act represents a delicate balancing of interests. In a state this large, tipping too far one way or the other puts the entire process in jeopardy.

My interest is in effectively enforcing the Coastal Act in a manner that is sensitive to both the environment and private parties. Some Commissioners may be proactive in their interpretation of the Act-I prefer to take a conservative view of its mandate.

Speaking of being proactive, when the Act was passed it required coastal communities to enact a Local Coastal Plan (LCP). Today, over two decades later, roughly 30%of these plans have not been completed. Last year in an interview with our sister publication, Metro Investment Report, Commission Chair Sara Wan said that the Commission needed additional funding to help local jurisdictions complete their plans. Has the Commission been able to secure that additional funding? And why haven't the LCPs been completed?

There are a number of reasons why LCPs have not been developed-they are labor intensive, time consuming, and frankly some communities just haven't chosen to spend their resources in that manner. Fortunately, this year's budget will provide additional monies to assist communities in developing them.

Additionally, a big issue with the Commission is public acces andsome communities believe that the Commission is too liberal. Those communities prize their exclusivity and have found it difficult to work with the Commission. And differences of opinion regarding wetlands issues have contributed to an inability for the Commission and some communities to work together.

Let's turn to some specific cases: the U.S. Navy has recently gone ahead with plans to expand their Radar testing facility outside Ventura County's Port Hueneme, despite objections from the Commission. Can you comment on that?

The Commission has clear authority with respect to activities in the coastal zone except when there is a federal jurisdiction involved. If we find a project not consistent, the federal government-in this case the military-has the ability to move forward regardless.

The recent Bolsa Chica case seems to broaden the Commissions responsibilities in relation to environmental protection. Cynthia, as an attorney, how will Bolsa Chica affect the Commission's future actions.

Bolsa Chica will present some interesting challenges for the Commission. It was first raised in an application submitted by Pepperdine University amending their long-range development permit. In that case staff recommended-in light of Bolsa Chica and the existence of purple needle grass-that we could no longer permit development. In that decision however, the Commission did not concur with staff's view.

It's situations like these, which have led developers to take the most pessimistic view of the Commission. They believe that we will use the Bolsa Chica decision to outright deny development, but we're always willing to discuss other courses of action that might be permissible.

Continuing with the affects of the Bolsa Chica case, AB 2310 sponsored by Assemblywoman Ducheny, was introduced to allow the Commission to approve-with mitigation- developments in environmentally sensitive areas. Understanding that the bill has gone through a lot of changes, what's your take on that legislation?

It was an extreme piece of legislation when it was originally introduced, due in part, to concerns that the Commission would take the most extreme meaning from Bolsa Chica. Today's version has been significantly amended and has become much more moderate.

The real question is-will the Commission continue to work to both improve projects and protect the environment? Or will they use Bolsa Chica to simply deny development? My firm belief is that the Commission will continue to balance these substantial interests. As long as we do that, additional legislation isn't necessary.

The Commission always has a full docket of cases but only a few reach the headlines-like the Hearst San Simeon property or Eli Broad and the Mayor's proposal for their property in Malibu. Do media sensitive cases unfairly shape public perceptions of the Commission's day-by-day managemenet of the coast?

Personally, I ignore the media sensitivity of projects. In my view, an application or a project that is high profile is no more important than any other application. The only thing the Coastal Commission can do is act consistently and demonstrate a logical connection between coastal policies, our prior acts and our decisions. And we have to hope that's how it's reported.


It doesn't serve us well to have our actions driven by the ‘spin of the day.' For example, the day that the Geffen sea wall was before the Commission there was a front page story in the L.A. Times about the horrors of sea walls. While there was little in the story that I would disagree with, it had no relation to the Geffen project except its timing. This appeared to be a well-orchestrated effort to have us look unfavorably upon the Geffen sea wall.

But, we approved the sea wall-which was perceived to be in response to efforts by the Geffen forces. The article had nothing to do with my decision to approve the sea wall. My decision was based solely on the specifics of that project.

Is the Coastal Commission involved in Playa Vista? We've heard every other governmental entity has been involved but we haven't heard much from the Coastal Commission.

The Commission has some involvement in Playa Vista-we're involved in the Catellus project on the bluff. And we hear regularly from the Ballona Wetlands representatives.

Urban runoff: an environmental issue of growing importance. How large an issue is it for the Coastal Commission?

Urban runoff represents a very large multi-jurisdictional issue with serious impacts for the coast and requires coordination to effectively address it-we've begun to review the runoff aspects of all permits before us and received good compliance.

Very few large projects come before us without a plan for utilizing best management practices. Very often they've also worked with the local mhnicipality to address the issue outside of the coastal zone.

For the Commission's decisions to be publicly appreciated, there has to be accurate media coverage. What could be done to improve the coverage of your work so that it's better understood?

More issue as opposed to individual dogfight coverage. We get a lot of coverage in connection with highly controversial projects but there is very little context. Frankly, I don't know that the general public's view is what will drive our future. The parties that appear before the Commission are very influential because they are the consumers so to speak. Their view of how we conduct ourselves has tremendous credibility. It's important that those parties, the legislature and the administration have a good understanding of what we do and that they believe we're acting in a manner that is reasonable and consistent with the Coastal Act.

Cynthia, digressing for a moment, you've been active in all levels of government. The Coastal Commission and the Act it created really is one of a number of acts that withered away home rule from local communities. What is the appropriate role of the state re: land use and local government, and is it important that local government have the wherewithal to be the architects of their own future?

There is a great deal of concern and sensitivity in Sacramento about the appropriate role of the State versus the local government. With term limits, you're getting a lot more officials from local government moving to Sacramento-which heightens that sensitivity

However, there is a growing appreciation for the statewide interest in certain issues and the need to have consistent application of standards. The Coastal Act represents the consensus that the protection of the coast is something that requires a statewide perspective.

In the coming years we're going to see a whole lot more give and take between the state and local interests and some reshaping of how decisions are made. Perhaps the way it will ultimately pan out is-more regional control in the planning process and less statewide bureaucracy. The way the L.A. River is progressing is indicative of what we're likely to see.

Finally, what lasting legacy would you like to have as a member of the Coastal Commission?

Balance is extremely important to me. Over the years the Commission has been hit from all sides by those who believe it acts too aggressively, either on behalf of the environment or on the behalf of developers. I want my time on the Commission to be associated with balance and the promotion of rational and understandable decision making.


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