Forget El Niño — California's coast is in danger from a soulless commission

My California tale of beauty and the beast began last week near Half Moon Bay, followed by a stop in Bodega Bay.

That's the "beauty" part of the story.

Then I went to a California Coastal Commission hearing.

I think you catch my drift.

My first stop was at Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay to do some reporting for an upcoming column on a long-running dispute there. A Silicon Valley billionaire owns this dreamy stretch of coast and has been sued for blocking access to a beach the common folk enjoyed for decades before his ownership.

For $30 million, he has told the state, he'll open the gate.

I don't think so.

Farther north, I hiked the trail at Bodega Head, hugging the cliff's edge for an awe-inspiring view. Steep slopes, bursting with wildflowers in bloom, cascade down to rocky crashing surf.

But there could soon be an access problem here too, because state parks officials want to hit motorists up to park at this and seven other locations.

That very issue was on the agenda at the coastal commission hearing in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, and hundreds of parking fee foes showed up to make their case.

But they had to wait a while.

Among the items that came first was an update on the need to find a successor to Executive Director Charles Lester, who was fired by the tone-deaf commission in February, on the same day hundreds of coastal stewards praised Lester's work. You'd think commissioners might have charted a clear course by now, but some of them don't always seem to have two oars in the water.

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Now that I'm a regular attendee at coastal commission meetings, I can tell you this crew has lost the trust, if not the respect, of many devoted protectors of the coast. They say this commission is more subject to political manipulation from Sacramento than past commissions and more inclined to challenge what appear to be solid, science-based staff recommendations.

But the problems don't end there.

Commissioner Wendy Mitchell voted last year on a Santa Barbara project involving one of her consulting company clients. She also posted a Facebook photo of herself with David "The Edge" Evans, U2's guitarist, in which she apologized for how long it took the commission to approve Evans' controversial five-mansion development on an undeveloped ridge in Malibu.

Commissioner Mark Vargas attended a U2 concert in Ireland last fall and met with Evans mere days before voting to approve the same project.

Commissioner Erik Howell is the subject of a Fair Political Practices Commission complaint over his support of a Pismo Beach project two weeks after receiving a campaign donation for his Pismo Beach City Council campaign from an employee of the project's lobbying firm.

Commissioner Martha McClure accepted a campaign donation to her Del Norte County supervisorial campaign from the same employee.

Commissioner Greg Cox has agreed to pay a $3,000 fine for voting on a Sea World permit when his wife owned stock in the San Diego theme park.

Some of these people shouldn't be put in charge of the bumper car concession at the Santa Monica Pier, let alone 1,100 miles of the greatest beaches in the world.

Now let's get back to parking fees.

The state parks department is underfunded and under-maintained, so it wants to charge as much as $8 a day — for starters — for parking at Sonoma beaches that have no staff and no amenities other than bare-bones bathrooms.

Not a good idea, said the coastal commission staff, which recommended against fees. Low-income residents would be unduly affected, said the staff, and some drivers would probably park along Highway 1 and create traffic hazards.

At Wednesday's meeting, the parks department's first move was to present a long-winded history of state parks.

Guess what.

Nobody in the audience came to hear what amounted to a filibuster, and after about 40 minutes, some turned their backs on the speaker.

They know and love their parks, and they had never wanted the coastal commission to involve itself in what should have been a county decision.

Reno Keoni Franklin, tribal chair of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, testified that the fees would constitute a "pay to pray" policy for his people, who visit sacred sites at those beaches. Others argued that full access to public beaches is a point of great passion in Sonoma County, which spawned the coastal protection movement and the commission itself, back in the 1970s.

Others said the governor and legislators should find statewide solutions for adequate funding of parks rather than arbitrarily nickel and diming taxpayers.

This went on for hours, and you could almost see Janelle Beland's blood boil. She's the non-voting member of the commission and Gov. Jerry Brown's undersecretary of Natural Resources, which oversees the parks department.

Beland supports parking fees, but one after another, Sonoma residents urged an ixnay on that and exposed holes and inaccuracies in the parks department's report.

What to do?

Take the meeting into the hall, so to speak. I saw Beland talking to the commission's chairman and vice chairwoman, Steve Kinsey and Dayna Bochco, as well as staff.

Maybe they're crafting a graceful retreat, I thought, so they don't reject the wishes of hundreds of people like they did when they dumped Lester into Morro Bay.

But if a Plan B was in play, it didn't seem fair. Hundreds of people came to what they thought was a public meeting, and most didn't know about the private confab just out of sight.

In the end, the commission cast an 11-1 vote.

To punt.

They've got to take a closer look at this, commissioners said, and get everyone together to work out a plan.

Nonsense.

They should have said it isn't the coastal commission's job to solve the parks department's budget problems, or Jerry Brown's, or the Legislature's.

But that's not the end of the story.

On Thursday, Chairman Kinsey reopened the meeting with a scolding of the previous day's crowd.

"There was an injustice in this hall yesterday that I found unacceptable..." he said. "The entire speaking public ignored its own self-interest in having state parks in Sonoma..." and "not a single individual expressed appreciation for what the park system provides."

We must have attended different meetings.

It's not the parks they take issue with; it's the parking fees, said Cea Higgins, a volunteer with the local Surfrider Foundation chapter.

"We have decades of history of supporting ... parks through land dedication, partnerships, funding and fundraising, volunteer efforts to do clean-ups, trail restoration, running docent programs for whale watching and harbor seal colony protection, and maintaining their visitor center and bathrooms," Higgins said.

If the coastal commission keeps the fee proposal alive, Higgins said, "this only blocks opportunities to push for statewide funding."

As I tour the coast in the state I was born in, I only have more appreciation for this great treasure and more doubts about the people whose job it is to protect it.

At the end of Wednesday's 12-hour meeting, a man was ejected from the auditorium for blowing a whistle.

As he was escorted into the lobby, he said:

"Someone has to blow the whistle on these people."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

@LATstevelopez

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 17, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Coastal panel rows in circles" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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