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A Sea So Near and So Far Away : Funding plan would help open public paths to the beaches

Both Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Coastal Commission are making good efforts to fulfill their promises to protect California’s oceanfront and to ensure that the public can enjoy this resource. But the new and welcome bipartisan spirit alone can’t do it. Tangible progress toward a healthier, more accessible coastline environment depends to a considerable degree on the actions of others.

California’s tidal strip--basically anything that gets wet at high tide--is public property, even if the beach behind it is privately held. The lack of adequate pathways to the shore is a long-standing problem.

In 1972, voters created the Coastal Commission to protect public access. As a result, state law now requires coastal property owners to dedicate easements across their property in exchange for permits to build or redevelop. Some 1,300 such “offers to dedicate” have been made since the commission was established. But lack of agency funding has kept the overwhelming majority of these easements in private hands. Locked gates, crumbling or nonexistent stairways or the absence of signs have resulted in the exclusion of the public from these promised pathways to the sea.

Because the Coastal Commission is not authorized to hold title to property, Californians could lose many of these easements unless other agencies agree to maintain the stairways, beach paths and trails. Agencies capable of holding title, like the State Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission and nonprofit conservancies, are willing to do so, but they lack funds to improve and open these pathways and to assume liability. The additional funding that Gov. Wilson has promised for the commission and the conservancy this year will help, but it won’t be enough.

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A bill introduced by Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) would allow the Coastal Commission to funnel the permit fees it collects to the Coastal Conservancy for this purpose. These permitting fees--totaling $500,000 to $600,000 annually--currently go into the general fund. But because McPherson’s bill would pull this money out of the general fund, the measure is stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Before it can be heard, committee members must decide which of many requests for general fund money deserve support. We think McPherson’s approach makes sense. Coastal easements are a public benefit to all Californians, but without public funds there is no access.


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