Coastal Commission: Allow people to defend themselves

The remarks of Coastal Commission Senior Deputy Director Charles Lester in his opinion piece (Capitol Weekly, July 17) misled the public and were otherwise unworthy of his position. His criticism of people for living in Big Sur was as if he had chastised the good people of San Francisco, or perhaps the people of Santa Cruz – cities where his agency has offices in multi-story buildings – for their "desire to live and build (their) homes in known hazardous areas," right after a devastating earthquake.

Mr. Lester's thinly veiled threats that his staff will use the recent wildfires as a reason to argue that people should not live in rural Big Sur once again reveals the commission staff's bias against the Big Sur community. He says, "The commission is focusing more on approaches that require new development to avoid hazardous areas."

Every area has its hazards and Big Sur is not unique. People generally recognize hazards and do what they can to deal with them, to the extent they are not hamstrung by bureaucrats looking to use them as an excuse to exercise otherwise unjustifiable control.
Despite Lester's statements to the contrary, providing good fire clearances can address the problem. Just as building earthquake-resistant buildings may have largely addressed the earthquake hazard for Coastal Commission offices, following good defensible-space practices can largely address the wildfire hazard. Ask fire personnel which homes survived the fires.

A June 27 editorial in Carmel's Pine Cone newspaper criticized the Commission for a recent ruling that blocks landowners from clearing brush to create defensible space for fire protection.

Lester opposed the newspaper's position, but the editorial was entirely justified. It was consistent with a recent appellate court decision that found the commission acted outside its lawful powers when it effectively amended environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA) provisions in a coastal land use plan during an appeal on a coastal permit.

The commission applied a new broad definition for the maritime-chaparral plant community in January, and then held that maritime chaparral is ESHA, effectively amending Big Sur's land use plan outside the amendment process.

Lester leads the public to think it is not a problem to remove ESHA to provide defensible space for fire protection. However he did not actually say that. In fact, ESHA designation generally precludes vegetation removal, and his staff argued that maritime chaparral cannot even be trimmed for fire protection purposes.

Lester's carefully parsed words lead the public to believe there is little maritime chaparral in Big Sur. However, the California Department of Fish and Game's maritime chaparral expert says, "We believe that almost all the chaparral within the coastal zone would be maritime chaparral, with very few exceptions." Another expert's opinion is that Lester's staff's newly applied definition means that all chaparral in Big Sur is maritime chaparral, with an estimated 1.3 million acres statewide, which hardly seems to justify a rarity designation. My estimate is that under the new definition there are about 30,000 to 60,000 acres of maritime chaparral in the 150,000-acre Big Sur coastal area.

The abuse of power and dissembling in the current maritime chaparral controversy makes clear it is time for the legislature to change the law so Californians will not be precluded or discouraged from providing defensible space for fire protection by overzealous bureaucrats creatively interpreting law. I propose that the Legislature:

• Amend the Coastal Act to say that only those resources expressly named in the local coastal Land Use Plan as being ESHA, with public participation, will be considered ESHA for that area;

• Change the Coastal Act's absurdly vague ESHA definition to ensure that only resources that actually need protection are protected;

• Add language to the Coastal Act and California's Endangered Species Act clarifying that "plant communities/alliances" will not receive protection until after: (a) it is generally accepted by experts that the plants in a plant community require each other's presence for their existence, (b) syntaxonomy for plant communities is developed to the point that competent experts can agree on where a plant community is in the real world, and (c) a statutory peer-reviewed public process like that for listing species as threatened or endangered is codified for listing plant communities as threatened or endangered;

• Provide a statutory exemption from California's Environmental Quality Act for creation of defensible space, which does not discourage the exemption's use due to species protection or other factors as with the exemption in the CEQA Guidelines.

• Provide in statute that the local fire authority or their delegee(s) may authorize fuel modification for creation of defensible space, without interference by planners, similar to what the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has proposed for that area.
Rather than looking for ways to distort the Coastal Act to hinder the Big Sur community, Mr. Lester would better serve the state's interests if he applied himself to interpreting the act to help the Big Sur community rebuild after the fires, and to allow Big Sur and all communities to defend themselves from hazards in the future so they can thrive.

Anything less is like telling the Coastal Commission its offices in earthquake-prone areas must be in unreinforced masonory buildings – dangerously irrational.

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