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Wilson Seeks Shift in Control Over Coast Development

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking a major shift in the way California has been protecting its coastline, Gov. Pete Wilson plans to insist next week that cities and counties--particularly Los Angeles--assume more responsibility for coastal development.

Wilson administration officials said Monday--in a preview of upcoming policy announcements--that dozens of local governments are violating the 1976 Coastal Act by not providing plans for beach area development.

As a result, they complained, the Coastal Commission has neglected its primary role as a resource management agency because it has been forced to spend excessive time on highly controversial coastal construction projects.

“The current approach of the Coastal Commission is the antithesis of what science has told us should be done,” a senior administration official said. “We are making decisions lot by lot. We don’t have a comprehensive means for coastal protection.”

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Wilson’s preview also indicated that more money would be available for state environmental agencies to computerize their operations and to step up attention to ocean water quality and wetlands restoration.

The proposal would establish two new state offices to prioritize and expedite wetlands restoration--one in Southern California and another in the San Francisco Bay Area--at a cost of about $6.2 million.

It also would fund several coastal enhancement projects such as new public facilities in Seal Beach and the repair of erosion damage in Santa Cruz.

At a time when the state is running a budget surplus, however, the total amount assigned to the governor’s coastal protection initiative is less than $13 million.

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As a result, while environmentalists welcomed the governor’s announcements, they complained that the proposals were underfunded and long overdue.

“It appears to be a tiny step in the right direction, but just a step,” said Warner Chabot, Pacific director of the Center for Marine Conservation in San Francisco. “Gov. Wilson wants to wrap himself in an environmental coat. This looks more like a green G-string.”

Dr. Gordon Labedz of Seal Beach, chairman of the environmental issues team of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal environmental group, said he was not impressed by the money Wilson is earmarking for coastal issues.

“That’s chicken feed, when you consider how much income comes to our economy from our coast,” he said.

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Environmental activists said they did not foresee any dire consequences stemming from the proposal, nor any weakening of the Coastal Commission. They noted that the Coastal Commission would still have ultimate authority for development plans and would review Local Coastal Plans for compliance with environmental regulations.

“We completely agree the [commission] should not be micro-managing the coast,” Chabot said. “This does not open the coast to rampant development.”

Wilson’s plan, however, held the potential for one more confrontation between state and local governments over costly mandated responsibilities.

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Wilson himself identified the requirement for a Local Coastal Plan as an unnecessary state mandate just two years ago, officials said.

The governor’s 1995 budget sought to remove the requirement that local governments comply with the 1976 Coastal Act. Monday, an administration official said that was a one-year reprieve so they could survive a tight economy.

Wilson administration officials singled out Los Angeles as a particularly time-consuming burden for the state Coastal Commission, since neither the city nor the county have adopted local development plans and the urban areas have numerous construction projects.

For example, the Coastal Commission’s lengthy agenda for its three-day January meeting includes a Long Beach restaurant’s application for expanding an outside dining area, new shelters and kiosks on Los Angeles County beaches and a bluff-top chain-link fence in San Pedro.

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Officials from both Los Angeles city and county acknowledged Monday that they are out of compliance with the state law. They also said part of the reason is that there is little incentive to take on such a major assignment.

“The truth is, these local plans are not going to make a significant difference” because the city will enforce the same statutes as the state, said Adi Liberman, chief of staff to Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents a large swath of the city’s coastal area.

Still, Liberman said: “It has taken far too long [and] there is no excuse for it not being done since the law requires the city to do it.”

Likewise, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky said he hopes the Local Coastal Plan will be a top priority in the upcoming year.

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Under the 1976 Coastal Act, which Wilson now hopes to enforce, 127 jurisdictions were required to adopt Local Coastal Plans to guide their development decisions in a manner consistent with environmental protection.

Oceanfront development decisions were to be made by local agencies and, if necessary, appealed to the Coastal Commission. Meanwhile, the commission would retain ultimate responsibility and authority for the health of California’s oceanfront--an area stretching from up to five miles inland to about three miles offshore.

More than 20 years later, officials said, 43 jurisdictions have ignored the law.

Privately, they speculated that the local governments have not been anxious to assume the controversial and time-consuming role of adopting coastal development plans and that they have been happy to delegate the task to a state agency.

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Coastal Commission executive director Peter Douglas said Wilson’s proposal “would be a substantial improvement.” He said the agency has tried to “encourage, beg and cajole” the derelict local governments into compliance with the Local Coastal Plan requirement.

He said the job has been difficult, however, because there is no penalty or incentive for local governments that do not want to comply.

Wilson’s budget proposal, which must be approved by the Legislature, will offer $500,000 to help local governments pay for the development of Local Coastal Plans.

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Most important, however, officials said the changes proposed by administration officials Monday were intended to allow the Coastal Commission to spend more time and resources on environmental monitoring and forecasting. For years, they said, the agency has fallen behind due to budget shortages and political opponents.

Former Gov. George Deukmejian fought the agency, complaining that it was an unnecessary layer of government. Wilson, however, was a state legislator in 1972 and a major proponent of the ballot initiative that created the Coastal Commission.

Wilson’s first budget proposal as governor in 1991 directed a 12% increase to the commission. But that turned into a 6% cut when the state recognized a huge budget deficit.

The commission is also still being buffeted by politics. Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) recently fired four commission members who were appointed last year by his predecessor, Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove).

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When Bustamante appoints four successors, the panel will return to a Democratic majority. The brief Republican control was marked by a highly controversial move to oust Douglas as the executive director. The effort was dropped last July.

Times staff writers Josh Meyer in Los Angeles and Deborah Schoch in Orange County contributed to this story.


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