Activist Laguna Beach Mayor Named to State Coastal Panel

Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach Mayor and environmental crusader Toni Iseman is the newest appointee to the powerful California Coastal Commission, the panel announced Wednesday.

Iseman, appointed by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), has been an outspoken environmental advocate since the 1970s and has helped lead an ongoing battle against the development of Laguna Canyon.

“She recognizes the economic importance of protecting California’s coastal resources,” said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club’s coastal programs. “What coastal commissioners are asked to do on a monthly basis is sacrifice long-term economic health for short-term profits. It’s vital that they appreciate the value of saying no to developers. She gets it.”


The 12-member commission acts like a planning agency responsible for development decisions along the entire 1,150 miles of California coastline. It routinely determines the fate of building permits for oceanfront homeowners and real estate developers.

Iseman’s appointment comes in the wake of a state appellate court ruling that declared the commission’s structure unconstitutional, threatening the agency’s authority to regulate coastal development.

The ruling, which is being appealed by the commission, found that the makeup of the commission violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine because the Legislature can appoint and dismiss commissioners of the executive agency.

Environmental activist Sara Wan also stepped down recently as commission chairwoman after it became clear that Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) wanted her replaced.

Iseman was on a short list of possible replacements for Huntington Beach Councilwoman Shirley S. Dettloff, who is leaving the commission.

One contender for the post was Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, who had support from the Sierra Club and local environmentalists. Other candidates were Seal Beach Councilman Paul Yost, Irvine Councilman Chris Mears and Orange County Supervisors Tom Wilson and Jim Silva.


For Iseman, the appointment brings her years of activism full circle.

Iseman’s earliest environmental action was at a Coastal Commission meeting in the 1970s, when she gave a speech against a condominium project across the street from her home.

Since then, she has made a mark as a fierce advocate, even chaining herself to a bulldozer in 1994 to block development of Laguna Canyon.

“I heard the sound of this 100-year-old tree being crunched by a bulldozer the size of my house,” Iseman said. “I decided it was time for me to make a statement. I was so aggravated with the lack of integrity in our government at every level.... I had to make a gesture so I could live with myself.”

She and the other protesters spent several hours in jail and had to do community service. “I have no regrets,” Iseman said.

“If I hadn’t done it, I would have been disappointed in myself.”