Third time in five years, lawmakers balk at Coastal Commission fees

For the third time in five years, California lawmakers have rejected an attempt to give the California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over 1,100 miles of coastline, authority to impose fines on those who violate coastal protection laws. Opponents of the plan were led by business, farm, petroleum and construction interests, and the measure failed after Assembly Democrats who backed it earlier withdrew their support.


The Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser has repeatedly recommended that the 12-member commission have the authority to impose fines, saying that the current procedure of going through the court system for administrative penalties is cumbersome and costly, and results in delays in permitting, among other problems. Some two-dozen other state agencies have the power to impose fines on such things as air-quality violations, toxic chemical pollution and clean-water regulations.


“It needs this authority in order to preserve the coast,” said Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Monterey Democrat. “It will make sure all of our constituents have access to the coast. It’s a hallmark of California.”


The measure, AB 976 by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, narrowly emerged from the Senate but stumbled in the Assembly, when it fell seven votes short of a simple majority in the 80-member house.


Atkins, the Assembly majority leader and a potential candidate for speaker, said her bill would enable the commission, which was created by popular vote over 40 years ago, to enforce its own rules.


“Why should we give so little power to a body that was supported and created by the people of California?” Atkins said.


Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, agreed. “If you don’t the authority to enforce the rules you’ve made, then you really don’t have anything,” she said.


The measure would have allowed civil penalties of $750 to $12,500 for certain violations of the Coastal Act, with money collected going to the Coastal Conservancy for environmental projects.


Foes of the bill said it gave the commission far too much power.


Former commission members who support the fee authority are saying, “Trust us, we got it under control, you don’t need to worry about us and our commission,” said Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine. “Every one of those members is honorable, but we don’t do government that way. That’s what we are being asked to do with this bill (but ) we  must have a check on government, on the temptations that come with unlimited power.”


“If they’ve done such a great job, I don’t think we need to be assessing fees,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, a surfer who said he grew up in a beach environment.

The Coastal Commission is no stranger to controversy.


It is a state regulatory agency charged with protecting the coast and it balances the demands of environmentalists with the demands of developers and property owners.


Among its sharpest critics are landowners in the coastal zone who believe their property rights are often usurped, business interests and the representatives of developers. The commission’s actions often involve properties worth millions of dollars and inevitably lead to tensions with powerful interests.


The LAO has long urged expanding the commission’s authority to include the direct imposition of fines and penalties.


“Currently, in order for the commission to issue a fine or penalty, the commission must file a case in the Superior Court,” the LAO noted in a 2008 analysis. “This process is cumbersome and results in few fines and penalties issued by the commission due to the high cost of pursuing enforcement through the courts,” the LAO noted. “By contrast, based on our review of other state and local regulatory agencies in the resources area, those which administratively assess fines/penalties tend to have this as a growing source of support for their enforcement activities.”

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