Coastal Commission is on a shoestring budget, and Trump won't make it any better

California is largely defined by its sweeping shoreline — an 1,100-mile asset that contains vast tracts of unspoiled coast and powers a $45-billion-a-year ocean economy dominated by tourism, shipping and agriculture.

Redwoods line the North Coast. Towering mountains rise out of the sea in Big Sur, and scenic bays mark the Central Coast. Santa Barbara anchors the so-called California Riviera, and there are the thriving cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

To oversee this varied landscape, voters and the Legislature established the California Coastal Commission in the 1970s. They handed the powerful land use agency the delicate, often controversial task of controlling development, increasing public access to the shoreline and protecting the state’s rocky coves, bird-filled wetlands and sandy beaches.

But by many accounts, the agency that became a model for coastal protection has had difficulty — sometimes extreme difficulty — fulfilling its broad mandate because of inconsistent funding and deep budget cuts driven by politics and economic downturns.

Even more financial hardship could be on the way next year if the regulation-averse Trump administration cuts $2 million in federal assistance to the agency — about 9% of its $22.4 million annual budget.

“The budget has been a challenge ever since I arrived at the commission in early 1989,” said Jack Ainsworth, the agency’s executive director. “We have wanted to provide good service to our constituents, but we haven’t always been able to do that. It’s been frustrating.”

Ainsworth, who worked his way up through the ranks, took the reins of the commission last year after a tumultuous period that included accusations of undue influence from developers and the firing of Charles Lester, a popular executive director.

Ainsworth now manages an agency responsible for comprehensive land use planning in a coastal zone that is 1,100 miles long and extends anywhere from 1,000 yards to five miles inland. It oversees and certifies the detailed planning documents that city and county governments must prepare under state law for their coastal regions.

Called local coastal programs, those plans must be reviewed every five years by the commission and comply with the California Coastal Act of 1976, which sets requirements for development, land uses, environmental protection, public access and preservation of marine resources.

The commission also issues development permits for local governments that lack coastal programs, and it considers appeals of coastal development permits.

In addition, the agency is responsible for opening up shoreline closed to the public, investigating violations of the Coastal Act, developing public education programs and overseeing oil and gas projects as well as local, state and federal activities in the coastal zone.

Although the commission has issued thousands of development permits, it has often done so at the expense of other important priorities.

“Most of the time the agency has been put on a starvation diet,” said Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at UC Davis with a longtime interest in the commission. “The result is perpetual bureaucratic triage.”

The commission’s financial stress began in the early 1980s after the agency’s annual budget at the time had grown to about $14 million and its staff to 212 — a peak the agency would never see again in terms of buying power and employees.

At the time, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who was in office from 1983 to 1991, sought to dismantle the commission, which he viewed as an unnecessary branch of government and a barrier to local control of coastal development planning. Then-commission director Peter Douglas called those years the agency’s “dark period.”

In the midst of a recession, Deukmejian began whittling away at the budget. About the same time, the federal government cut its annual contributions of taxpayer money to the commission by 50% to 75% depending on the year.

In 1989, a state Senate commission that had been established to rein in government spending took a look at the Coastal Commission’s finances. Instead of discovering an inefficient bureaucracy that was misspending money, the panel reported that the agency lacked the money to achieve its enormous task.

The report noted that the staff and budget had been cut almost in half — more so than most other government agencies. The commission had closed its Eureka office, which kept watch over about a third of the coast, and there was only one enforcement officer for the entire state.

Researchers warned that the budget cuts could prove penny-wise and pound-foolish, resulting in poor planning and inadequate scrutiny of coastal development, thereby creating problems that would cost more to fix in the long turn than what was being saved by the cuts.

“Most of our problems go back to the really devastating budget cuts by Deukmejian,” said Mary Shallenberger, one of the researchers for the Senate study and a coastal commissioner for the last 12 years. “We have never recovered from that.”

Govs. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger each tried to replenish the budget in his own ways, but those efforts largely fell prey to economic recessions and state budget deficits.

The commission’s budget dipped to 1980 levels for some years. The agency could no longer help cities prepare their local coastal programs, and it fell far behind in performing the five-year reviews of those plans.

Staff continued to be cut, and scores of employees took unpaid leaves to save money or left to work for better-paying government agencies. The agency could not afford to hire experts such as geologists, biologists and environmental engineers to do its work, and by 2010, the average development project took more than 400 days to approve.

At one point, money for office supplies was so scarce there were shortages of printer paper.

“The workload was onerous,” said Brian Baird, a former energy analyst and legislative liaison at the commission. “We had a very dedicated staff who put in tremendous amounts of time to make it work. But it was hard on project applicants at times, and reviewing and updating local coastal programs was very, very difficult.”

After Gov. Jerry Brown took office, the commission’s budget improved due to increases in state and federal dollars, environmental license plate fees and compensation for work the commission did for other state agencies, such as Caltrans.

Adjusted for inflation, however, the commission’s current budget would have to be nearly doubled — to about $40.5 million — to equal its buying power in 1980. The current staff of 159 reflects 53 fewer positions than in 1980, although agency officials insist their workload has steadily increased in both volume and complexity.

Out of 126 local coastal programs, 34 have not been completed, some of them in Southern California. The commission has been able to comprehensively review only about 15 of the 92 approved plans, the average age of which is now about 25 years.

The plans are potentially inconsistent with more current land use court rulings, contain outdated permitting standards and procedures, or are inadequate to deal with emerging environmental conditions such as sources of pollution, climate change and coastal erosion.

As of 2014, the agency has been receiving an additional $3 million annually in state money to hire 20 to 25 employees who will finally handle the long overdue reviews and help local governments update them.

“All local coastal programs are unique, and many of them need updates related to all Coastal Act issues, but the most critical need right now is to address sea level rise, which will have dramatic impacts on our shoreline and public access,” said Madeline Cavalieri, a coastal program manager in the commission’s Santa Cruz office.

In the commission’s first review of San Luis Obispo County’s 13-year-old coastal plan, officials identified 22 significant changes since the plan was approved that could affect development and environmental protection.

They included new listings of several endangered species, limits on sources of water, the emergence of elephant seal breeding colonies and the designation of the San Simeon fault as active. Officials also noted increased coastal erosion, home construction in remote coastal ranch lands and pollution from MTBE, a gasoline additive and threat to groundwater quality.

“Thirteen years is far too long a time period to wait in between such evaluations,” a commission report stated. “The longer the time period between comprehensive evaluations, the more likely it is that coastal resources will be lost due to changing circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the backlog of open enforcement cases has grown dramatically from a few hundred in the 1980s to 2,339 at the end of last year. The matters involve illegal grading, obstructing public easements to beaches, improper excavation of Native American sites, illegal subdivisions, unpermitted construction and illegal destruction of wetlands and wildlife habitats.

A group of residents in Marina Peninsula, an L.A. beach community near Venice, say they have become frustrated in their yearlong attempt to get the agency’s enforcement unit to fully investigate two homes with yards that extend into public areas of the beach — a potential violation of the Coastal Act.

“If one or two people are allowed to do this, who is going to stop others?” said Heidi Herpel, one of the residents who discussed the matter with the agency. “The Coastal Commission has essentially told us they have too much on their plate. In other words, they have other priorities.”

Agency officials say that encroachments onto public land are a high priority but because of under staffing they have to make hard choices and cannot get to many violations as quickly as they would like.

Consequently, the commission concentrates on major cases and activities that immediately threaten the environment or block public easements to beaches.

Because it has the power to fine violators of public access requirements, the agency often pursues those cases and obtains compliance before penalties need to be imposed.

Last December, the commission fined a Malibu homeowner $4.2 million for flagrantly blocking a public access way to the beach for years. It also ordered a Malibu hotel owner to build stairways to the beach, install a crosswalk on Pacific Coast Highway and pay $500,000 in penalties.

Lisa Haage, the commission’s head of enforcement, said she would like to double her staff of 12 to reduce the backlog, but the agency has been unsuccessful in getting more money from the Legislature for enforcement.

“It’s daunting and a bit demoralizing. We are pedaling as fast as we can and leveraging our resources as much as possible,” Haage said. “We want to create a deterrent, but cases come in faster than we can address them.”

Although the commission now has 11 scientists on staff, it still does not have compliance officers to make sure builders stick to the conditions of their coastal development permits. Over the years, small samples of permits show that the noncompliance rate has ranged between 22% and 65% depending on the year.

Today, the recent budget gains are threatened by a Trump administration proposal to cut the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $5.6-billion budget by about $950 million in 2018. The cutback could eliminate money for research, coastal management, grants and programs designed to protect shorelines from major storms and rising seas.

The Coastal Commission received about $2 million from NOAA this year. Agency officials estimate that as many as 10 positions might have to be eliminated, and the cuts could hamper the ability to address coastal issues, including sea level rise that could inundate coastal communities.

“This would be devastating for us,” Ainsworth said. “There’s lots of uncertainty. We don’t know exactly what is going on. It’s all up to Congress.”

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @LADeadline16

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