Legislature may decide soon if Coastal Commission can levy fines

Nadine Froger, left, and Jean Jacques Pochet walk along Broad Beach in Malibu.
(Christina House / For The Times)

The state Legislature is nearing a decision on whether to give the California Coastal Commission an enforcement tool it has coveted for four decades — the power to impose fines.

The Senate is expected to vote as early as this week on a bill bestowing the new power to the agency that oversees development and public access along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.

The bill was approved by the Assembly in May on a 42 to 32 vote and cleared a Senate committee last week, but the measure faces opposition from business groups that believe the commission already wields too much clout.


All parties expect a close vote.

The legislation would place the Coastal Commission on equal footing with more than 20 other state regulatory agencies with the power to levy fines. Unlike those agencies, the commission must go to court to collect penalties from anyone who violates the state Coastal Act by damaging coastal habitat, building without permission or blocking public access to the beach.

That lengthy process has hobbled the agency’s efforts to protect coastal resources and contributed to a backlog of more than 1,900 unsettled cases.

“If you can get a fine for turning in a library book late, you should get fined for cutting off access to the beach or filling in a wetland,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, one of dozens of environmental groups that support the legislation.

Margo Parks, director of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Assn. and leader of a coalition of about 30 business, agricultural and building industry groups opposing the bill, said the commission misunderstands the issue.

“Perhaps what the commission is seeing as willful disobedience is more like disagreement,” Parks said. “These people may not be willing to settle because they don’t feel they are in the wrong.”

Backers of the bill including its sponsor, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), have pointed to several high-profile cases that highlight the limits of the commission, including the extravagant June wedding of Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and former president of Facebook. His nuptials violated the Coastal Act because he built without a permit a faux cottage, artificial pond, stone bridge, elevated dance floor and other structures in the redwood forest of Big Sur.


Parker settled with the agency voluntarily for $2.5 million.

“He stepped forward,” Atkins said. “Many people don’t.”

More typical are cases that drag on for years, or even decades, without consequences for violators.

The agency’s 1,944 open cases include a waste-disposal company accused of illegally dumping concrete and steel debris off a bluff top in Pacifica and the construction of patios and shade structures on the Torrance bluffs, habitat of the federally endangered El Segundo blue butterfly. Among the most persistent violations have been those of Newport Beach homeowners who years ago extended their lawns and patios onto the public sand and Malibu residents who have put up fake “no parking” signs to keep visitors from public beaches.

Of the commission’s staff of 135, 12 are assigned to its enforcement division, and they rely mostly on tips from the public. Without the power to impose fines, the agency has little recourse but to send cease-and-desist orders, which are often ignored by property owners.

The commission has gone to court to collect fines from violators only four times in the last decade. When cases do get resolved, it is often when violators agree to pay voluntary penalties or correct the problem rather than fight it out in court.

“It’s unfair when the people who settle voluntarily pay a penalty and the people who don’t pay nothing,” said Lisa Haage, the commission’s chief of enforcement.

The commission has collected $7.5 million through settlements over the last decade, including the one reached with Parker, agency records show.

A 2008 report by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office said, “This process is cumbersome and results in few fines and penalties issued by the commission due to the high cost of pursuing enforcement through the courts.”

Without the administrative penalties used by other agencies, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Air Resources Board, the Coastal Commission staff says, some of the worst affronts to the environment and coastal access go unaddressed the longest.

The agency staff cites the case of the Marine Forests Society, a nonprofit that in the early 1990s built an artificial reef from old tires off Newport Beach without a permit. The Coastal Commission ordered the group to remove it, resulting in a lengthy legal battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Though the case ultimately was decided in the commission’s favor, the ocean floor was never cleaned up.

“They neither removed the tires nor paid a fine; they just went out of business,” Haage said. “It’s unbelievable, but that’s what happened.”

The power to assess fines could give the commission a boost at a time when some of its supporters fear its influence is waning.

The commission, created in 1972 by voter initiative, has been in a period of transition since the death last year of its former head, Peter Douglas, a forceful advocate whose political connections gave the agency muscle beyond its administrative channels.

Douglas was succeeded by Charles Lester, and a series of vacancies and appointments to the 12-member commission has replaced veteran members with comparatively inexperienced ones. The changes have led some, including former commissioner Steve Blank, to warn that the commission is in danger of losing its hard line on coastal development and at risk of being captured by the interests it is supposed to regulate.

“We’re now in a perfect storm of a new director, new commissioners and the environmental community kind of checked-out, that threatens the long-term health of the commission,” said the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who resigned in June after more than six years on the panel. “This bill goes the other way in strengthening the ability of the commission to actually enforce its mandate.”

Key to that mission, Blank said, is preserving what has become part of California’s identity: a coastline that is not paved over and hard to reach, where ocean views are not blocked out by hotels and condominiums as they are in parts of the Atlantic coast.

“We made a decision decades ago that the coast is a shared resource, and that, no, you can’t do anything you want here; you have to consider its impact on all Californians,” Blank said.