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A ‘sea change’ in coastal protections

The bicycling competition at Manhattan Beach, Calif. (Photo: Rodolfo Arpia)

For years, the California Coastal Commission has sought the power to impose fines on people who violate the state’s coastal protection laws. But the high-profile efforts – at least three times in five years — were defeated in the Capitol by business interests, developers and property rights activists, among others.

But that’s now changed.

Beginning July 1, in what environmentalists described as a “sea change,” the Coastal Commission will have the authority to fine property owners who block the public’s access to beaches.

The new authority, which caught many by surprise, was included deep in a so-called “trailer bill” attached to the state budget signed by Gov. Brown for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

It’s a scaled-back version of what the commission wanted, but it marks a turning point for the 12-member panel, which regulates 1,100 miles of coastline. For the first time, the commission will have authority similar to that which 21 other agencies wield that regulate toxics, water quality, air pollution, forest protections and other issues.

The new authority, which caught many by surprise, was included deep in a so-called “trailer bill” attached to the state budget signed by Gov. Brown for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The language was crafted by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, who authored legislation last year to authorize the commission’s ability to levy fines. That bill, AB 976, was rejected amid opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.

But Atkins, newly elected as Assembly speaker, got revised language linked to the new budget.

“This basically puts the Coastal Commission on similar ground as to other state agencies to levy fines for violations,” Atkins said. “It’s narrowly constructed language about blocking access to the coast and beaches. It does allow the fines to levy fines with appropriate notice.”

The Coastal Commission has about 2,000 open cases, and a third of them involve public access. To impose fines, the commission has gone through the courts.

She added that “this is a small piece of what they should be allowed to do in order to protect the coast.”

Reducing the scope of the original bill played an important role in its passage.

“It was too broad a grant of authority. When it was narrowed down to public access, that was legitimate,” said Alex Creel of the California Association of Realtors, which opposed the earlier legislation.

The budget also contains $3 million annually for four years for the commission to work with local governments to update their local coastal protection plans, some of which haven’t been updated for three decades, and $2.5 million to study sea-level rise and climate change.

The Coastal Commission has about 2,000 open cases, and a third of them involve public access. To impose fines, the commission has gone through the courts.

With the new authority, the commission can impose fines itself, although the amounts can vary and the commission has broad discretion. Potential fines have a maximum of $11,250 per day and can accrue up to five years. The amount is less than allowable by the courts, representing a maximum of about 75 percent of court-imposed fines; nor are the courts limited to the five-year accrual.

According to an Assembly analysis, Superior Courts may impose civil penalties between $500 and $30,000 per violation of the Coastal Act, and additional civil penalties between $1,000 and $15,000 may be imposed for each day in which the violation persists.  Those fines target a range of coastal violations, not just public access issues.

The collected money does not stay with the commission, but instead is shifted to a Coastal Conservancy fund.

“This was a smart move my Speaker Atkins, and I am pleased to see her succeed,” said Nathan Weaver of Environment California. “In the coming months (the Commission) will face tough decisions on coastal access, offshore drilling, coastal armoring, and desalination plants among others.  This support from Sacramento will improve their capacity to address these issues.”

 


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