For State’s Lone ‘Coastal Cop,’ Help Is Coming : Environment: Charged with battling illegal development, the Coastal Commission’s sole sentry has been called the state’s most overburdened bureaucrat. But the new budget includes funds for 3 new assistants.
For most of the past six years, Nancy Cave has been California’s lone coastal sentry, fighting a rear-guard action to protect the state’s most precious resource from the ravages of illegal development.
As an outgrowth of former Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision to slash the California Coastal Commission’s budget, Cave--officially the agency’s enforcement officer--labored as state government’s only full-time “coastal cop.”
Sometimes, that meant complaints about alleged illegal development activity went unanswered--at least temporarily. For example, Cave said, in 1987 her office received a complaint that Malibu landowner Tom Voiss was clearing and grading his hillside homestead next to Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, posing a potential for erosion and stream pollution.
Cave recalled that initially she “couldn’t respond to the calls,” and then “there was no staff to go out there” for at least a week.
And “because of the sheer overload of cases,” she added, the agency did not file a court action against Voiss until four months after first being told about the problem. Meantime, Cave said, the damage continued on a daily basis.
But Cave, who has been called the state’s most overburdened bureaucrat, now may be getting some permanent relief.
As part of his first state budget, Gov. Pete Wilson, Deukmejian’s successor, earlier this month proposed increasing the commission’s budget by $656,000, in part to pay for three assistants to help Cave investigate complaints of illegal development activity along the state’s 1,100-mile-long coastline.
Wilson’s proposal has been greeted enthusiastically by Coastal Commission officials, whose workload grew as the staff declined during Deukmejian’s eight years in office. Unable to abolish the commission--which Deukmejian opposed as an unnecessary intrusion on local planning powers--he periodically slashed its budget. One of the early effects of his cuts was to reduce the full-time enforcement staff from as many as six to one--Cave. Overall, the commission’s staff dwindled from about 170 to 98.
Cave learned about Wilson’s spending proposal as she arrived at work on the day Wilson unveiled his spending plan. She was greeted by the words “good news,” which had been scrawled onto a summary of the governor’s budget message that was tacked onto a receptionist’s office door.
Cave welcomed the proposal but voiced guarded optimism, citing many hours of legislative hearings the budget faces in Sacramento. Nonetheless, she cracked: “It’s the first time in my relationship with my husband that I haven’t come home depressed on budget day.”
In her job, Cave investigates cases that range from forged coastal development permits to overextended sun decks. The most frequent violations involve complaints about the unauthorized grading of coastal property for a road or home, the removal of trees and shrubs, or construction of sea walls and other shoreline barriers that restrict public access.
While it takes about an average of 40 hours to fully investigate a complaint, Cave said an alleged violation can take years to resolve, especially if the commission has to go to court on the matter.
During the Deukmejian administration, budget cuts forced Cave to spend the bulk of her time at the commission’s office in San Francisco. That meant she had to rely on college interns or other commission staffers to physically investigate residents’ complaints--most of which came from Los Angeles County----and report back.
Even before Deukmejian left office in early January, Cave received temporary help--an assistant who began work in the fall and whose salary is paid by a federal grant. But the federal funds are available for only one year.
Moreover, the backlog of complaints awaiting Cave’s attention--and in many cases stacked high atop her desk--continues to hover around 700. As quickly as she resolves one dispute, she said, another typically arises.
The upshot is that Cave, who makes $48,000 a year, has had “the worst job in state government in terms of being overburdened,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The conservancy is a state agency that frequently deals with the Coastal Commission on development issues in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
And Gordon Hart, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said that the commission’s staff shortage has weakened the ability of the panel to perform such key tasks protecting coastal access, curbing visual pollution and stopping land erosion.
Hart said the enforcement office’s staffing situation “couldn’t be worse.” He charged that because of it, some developers agree to grading restrictions or other building conditions because they know “they can violate it with impunity.”
As a result, the goal of preserving the coastline has been undermined, according to a 1989 report issued by the state Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in State Government.
“With travel expenses as restricted as staff resources, very few site visits by commission staff are possible,” the report said. “Relying on occasional visits and citizen reporting has meant missing altogether an unknown number of violations, and discovering others too late to halt serious damage to coastal resources.”
Cave, who would not discuss pending cases, cited two cases from 1987 as examples of how the lack of staff hampered enforcement efforts. If she had enough staff, Cave asserted, she could have stopped these projects “in their tracks.”
In one case, an archeologist appealed to the commission to stop the bulldozing of an Indian burial ground by property owners in Topanga. But because of inadequate staff, “we were not able to go out there and stop it” immediately, Cave said.
After this initial delay, she said, a cease-and-desist order was served on the owners, Steve and Arnold Carlson, who were contending they had a right to develop their property.
The commission then obtained an injunction ordering the Carlsons to stop work on their parcel. Cave added that last year, Steve Carlson won commission approval for some development if he restored the damaged property.
Cave said the dispute could have been resolved more quickly if the commission staff had been able to visit the site sooner. Said Cave: “If you can stop someone in the beginning stages of development . . . they are more likely” to get the required permit from the commission or discuss changing the project.
The second case Cave cited was the Malibu grading dispute involving landowner Tom Voiss. In that case, Voiss eventually agreed to pay $16,000 in damages and restore the property to its original condition.
Richard Moneymaker, Voiss’ lawyer, said the dispute’s resolution would have been easier on all involved had the commission “gotten (to Voiss) faster.”
Cave said these two cases highlight the need for a commission investigator to be based in the agency’s Long Beach field office, which has responsibility for Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Of the 675 cases pending before Cave, more than half arise out of disputes handled by the Long Beach office. For example, between April 1 and June 30 of last year, the Long Beach office reported opening 30 cases and closing 12, while 375 remained pending before Cave or awaiting resolution by the Coastal Commission.
Under Wilson’s budget proposal, one of the new enforcement officials would be based in Long Beach, according to a commission executive.
Despite the overwhelming workload she has faced, Cave has won high marks from friends and foes alike in the performance of her tasks. They portray the onetime commission secretary as diligent, down-to-earth, energetic, and tough but fair.
In the view of Steven H. Kaufman, a deputy attorney general who represents the Coastal Commission, Cave’s style is even-handed. “She has a very tough side to her, a kind of no-monkey business approach,” Kaufman said. But, he added, “Over the years, she’s become compassionate and (has) looked for equitable ways to solve different kinds of coastal enforcement matters.”
Lawyers who appear before the Coastal Commission offer a similar view. Long Beach lawyer Charles Greenberg, who has appeared on behalf of homeowners and developers, said that if Cave believes a case can be resolved amicably, she will try to be cooperative
“Her heart’s in the right place,” Greenberg said. But he added that at times Cave seems “frustrated and somewhat ineffective, probably because of constraints outside of her control.”
Joseph Petrillo, a San Francisco lawyer who frequently appears before the Coastal Commission, said that Cave sometimes finds herself caught in the middle--between developers grousing about being unfairly targeted and commissioners who believe “she’s not doing enough.”
A onetime commission chief counsel, Petrillo’s clients have included Sheldon Gordon, a Malibu developer embroiled in a dispute with the Coastal Commission over his grading of 14 times the amount of earth his development permit allowed.
Petrillo contended the commission’s enforcement efforts have been hampered because the agency’s management “hasn’t allocated the resources to enforcement, but has decided to put their resources in other areas.”
But he does not fault Cave, who has handled parts of the Gordon matter. “I think Nancy does a terrific job in a very difficult situation. . . . It’s almost like a no-win situation.”