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Building Castles in the Sand : As Coastal Commission’s Power Fades, Reasonably Sized Projects, Including Hotels, Have a Better Chance of Being Built Now

Times Staff Writer

Up and down California’s coastline, says Bill Allayaud, people in almost every seaside town can point to one or more buildings and say: “That’s why we approved Proposition 20.”

Allayaud is legislative coordinator for the California Coastal Commission, the state agency created by Proposition 20 in 1972.

The new commission took over control of seaside development from coastal cities and counties. In doing so, the panel made it more difficult for developers to build towering condominiums near the water or plop a hotel right down on the beach.

But the pressure to develop along the coastline has been building year after year.

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And subsequent legislation requires that the Coastal Commission’s power gradually revert to local governments as the commission approves their development plans. Gov. George Deukmejian, an avowed foe of the commission, has been cutting its budget through much of the 1980s and appointing members with a pro-development stance.

The bottom line: While it’s harder to develop on the coast than it was in the 1960s, if your project isn’t too gargantuan, you probably have a good chance of getting it approved.

In the years since the commission was created, environmentalists have won some compromises, like the Irvine Coast, where parkland was donated and plans were scaled back considerably. They’ve even won some outright victories, such as when Sierra Club lawyers got a federal court to halt plans for a 400-room hotel and convention center in a sensitive wetlands area at Chula Vista in San Diego County.

It isn’t just aesthetics that concern these people. Even resort hotels that aren’t built on wetlands have environmental drawbacks, say environmentalists like Fern Pirkle, president of Friends of the Irvine Coast.

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There’s the possibility of polluting the ocean, particularly from soil draining into the sea; destruction of wildlife habitats, and erosion and air pollution from increased traffic.

Pirkle says she will be monitoring every step of the Irvine Coast construction, watching for deviations from the plan.

But there’s another issue raised by all this, a political rather than environmental concern: In this new wave of development, how much of the coastline will be left for the public? While the initiative guarantees public ownership of the beach up to the mean high-tide line, getting to that narrow strip through the intervening buildings can sometimes be difficult.

“The framers of the initiative envisioned low-density recreational uses for much of the coast,” said Ann Notthof, a senior project planner with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.

“But the developers have turned that around and built luxury resorts like the Ritz-Carlton that don’t serve a broad segment of the public.”

After the long freeze, however, tremendous pressures are building to develop much of the rest of Southern California’s coast.

“It seems likely there’ll eventually be more limitations on coastal hotel building, plus there’s only so much coast that’s appropriate for a resort,” said Gary T. Wescombe, a partner at real estate accountants Kenneth Leventhal & Co.'s Newport Beach office.

“So if you can get a hotel built, you’ve probably got an asset that’s going to increase tremendously in value over the long run.”

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