Layoffs, cuts force delays In Coastal Commission permits

MALIBU- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s move to slash more than $600,000 from the California Coastal Commission is causing it to delay permits by up to a year on certain projects and deny others outright because of time constraints and staff shortages.
Local officials and commissioners are concerned that the delays may tempt impatient project applicants to resort to unpermitted development.

“As a result of the budget shortfall and staffing cuts, the South Central Coast District office responsible for the Malibu area has been subject to significant cuts in its planning staff, and those cuts can result in potential delays of processing the city’s LCP (Local Conservation Plan) amendments and new project applications,” said Steve Hudson, Coastal Commission district manger of the South Central Coast District.

The delays, however, will impact residents and developers more than they will the city.

“We don’t have that many projects that go to the Coastal Commission,” City Manager Jim Thorsen said recently.

“Those that do are LCP amendments and processing requirements. We can wait until they make decision on those.”

Malibu City Councilmember John Sibert last week said that the LCP, a set of ground rules for coastal development and protection of coastal resources in Malibu, contains many ambiguities that are perceived differently by the Coastal Commission and the city. In these circumstances, the city requests amendments to the LCP, but the commission has the final say in their approval or denial.

The City of Malibu currently has eight pending amendments to its LCP that have been submitted to the Coastal Commission, including two that are upcoming in the near future.

Of the six pending amendment requests that remain, four call for the rezoning of residential properties, one seeks to change the wording in the LCP to allow adjacent developable land parcels to be transferred to public entities, and another requests the addition of definitions for natural and manufactured slopes and for the rainy season to clarify general development standards.

All plans for new Malibu developments are first submitted to the Coastal Commission, which must certify that they comply with the city’s Local Coastal Program. In authorizing coastal development permits after LCP certification, the city must also agree that the development complies with the certified LCP. Any amendments requested by the city to the certified LCP require review and approval by the Coastal Commission 60 to 90 days after they are submitted. The commission, however, has one opportunity to extend the review period for each submission to one year.

The commission has been applying its one-time, one-year extensions to numerous project applications, but it has also denied others simply because of time constraints and staff shortages.

Sarah Christy, the Coastal Commission’s legislative director in Sacramento, said Friday in a telephone interview that the commission staff has been reduced by 20 percent since 2000, with nine positions cut since late 2008.

“Permits and appeals take months and months longer than they should,” Christy said Friday in a telephone interview. “The reality is that if we can’t get the work done within the [60-90 day] time frame, we have to deny the permit because we can’t do the work. In many cases it’s a perfectly good project we approve of, but we can’t do so without staff.”

Shortage affects enforcement of unpermitted development.

The staffing shortage has also forced the commission to lose a number of its enforcement officials who monitor unpermitted development.

“We have over 1,300 backlogged enforcement cases that would take over 100 years to clear at the current pace of resolution,” Christy said, adding that unpermitted development is unenforced in at least 25 percent of the California coast.

“That [unpermitted development] is always a problem,” Sibert said. “There’s always been a bootlegging issue in Malibu. All we can do is hope people report them.

“The trouble is, the size of our staff compared to 13,000 city residents make it difficult to know what’s going on,” he added.

Before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the final 2008-2009 fiscal year budget in September, he used his line item veto to reduce the Coastal Commission’s general fund budget allocation by $617,000 (approximately five percent).

Based in part on recommendations from the Legislative Analyst Office, Legislative Budget Subcommittee and the Department of Finance, the commission increased permit and filing fees beginning in March 2007.

Though the commission received $524,000 from increased permit fee revenues to cover some operating expenses, it continues to have inadequate funds to cover operating costs and replace aging equipment.

“Our office equipment is so old, they’ve stopped making replacement parts for some of them,” Christy said. “There have been months we’ve run out of paper. We recently upgraded our computers with hand-me-downs from the Department of Fish and Game, a department known to be starved. But their computers were an upgrade for us.”

Cost reductions by the Coastal Commission that will remain in effect through the 2008-2009 fiscal year include the termination of all limited-term staff, 19 layoffs (with 27 more in the upcoming six months), a “Leave Without Pay” program in which more than 70 staff members have pledged over $218,000 (704 staff days) of leave without pay to reduce staff layoffs, and elimination of essentially all training (including legally required training).

The commission has also reduced the number of staff that travels to meetings throughout the state, and has reduced all public hearings to a maximum of three days per month.

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