If you were a coastal conservation activist in California, with 1,100 miles of shoreline to look after, how would you even decide where to begin?
There's always a battle somewhere, and let me give you just a couple of examples from one tiny section of the coast.
Moss Landing is in the news again this week as the Surfrider Foundation and other activists try to stop Cemex, an international sand mining company, from trucking away the beach as it has done for decades, causing erosion that has begun to set off lots of alarms.
Just south of there and also on Monterey Bay is a former sand mining operation that could soon become the site of a mega-development with nearly 400 hotel rooms and condo units.
Conservation groups are threatening a suit because of damage to the nesting area of a bird protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the developer tells me he's prepared to begin construction this fall. Catch my column on that one in the next few days.
So much coast to save, so little time.
So on my summer drive from Oregon to Mexico for the 40th anniversary of the Coastal Act, I dropped in on Susan Jordan of the nonprofit California Coastal Protection Network to see how she picks her battles.
Jordan has been a steady presence at the Coastal Commission's monthly hearings for years. She's usually situated somewhere in the middle of the audience, listening, taking notes and flipping through stacks of research materials. Other advocates are more inclined toward sandals and Hawaiian shirts. Jordan is dressed like a CEO who means business.
In February, moments before commissioners fired Executive Director Charles Lester, Jordan stepped to the podium in his defense, armed with a warning.
"There will always be another billionaire who will block access to the beach," she said in her typical straightforward manner.
Lately, fearing a commission tilt that could make more development possible, she has spoken out in support of legislation to ban private meetings between commissioners, developers, lobbyists and even advocates like herself. As she sees it, the development lobby dominates the process, and she'd be happy to see that advantage legislated out of existence.
Given how pulled-together she is in public, you'd expect to find Jordan working from a second-floor office in a corporate building, with a nice view of the water or at least a few paintings of fabulous coastal vistas.
Instead, the headquarters of her nonprofit is a small nook in the kitchen of a modest home in the Santa Barbara foothills. And I mean nook. Her "office" is 3 feet from the oven, with files in boxes, and she splits the tiny space with two small rescue dogs who nap at her feet.
There is no staff, although she hired a Sacramento-based legislative director — Amy Trainer — this past spring. But there is what she refers to as "the team."
Lately, she's been doing research on how to best preserve what little is left of funky beach towns and increase access for those who have been priced out of summer vacations by the corporatization of lodging and rising room rates.
And she's been strategizing with kindred spirits to prepare for a September hearing on two of the most controversial projects awaiting Coastal Commission votes.
One is the gargantuan Newport Banning Ranch development, and the other is the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Jordan has issues with both, centered on all her usual concerns:
The impact on plant, animal and sea life, and the high cost of desalinated water to those who could least afford it.
The impact on ever-diminishing open space.
And the impact and influence of politics and money on the decision-making process when roughly $1 billion is at stake on each project.
"You need to have someone who is there on a regular basis," said former Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan. "You have people who come occasionally but don't really know what's going on. They might understand their particular issue but not the commission and how it functions."
Jordan has had an impact, said Wan, by speaking up for the Coastal Act and challenging those who don't respect it, sometimes to establish a foundation for legal challenges of commission decisions. Even when Jordan doesn't win, Wan said, she can sometimes influence compromises.
Some commissioners would no doubt love to see Jordan find another line of work. But to Wan's mind, Jordan has enough credibility that critics can't easily dismiss her.
"There is no way she has not had an impact," said Wan.
Jordan had a successful career as a market researcher until the 1990s, when she was living in Manhattan Beach and opened the L.A. Times one day to see a story by Richard Paddock about underwater sound-blasting tests that could make whales deaf.
"I read it and said, 'Oh my God, this is the worst idea I've ever heard,'" said Jordan, who reached out to a scientist for backup and began working to defeat the plan.
Another battle took place at San Simeon. Jordan, raised on the East Coast, was awestruck by the Central Coast's beauty and dumbstruck by a Hearst Corp. plan to build several mega-resorts and a 27-hole golf course at the water's edge and double Highway 1 from two lanes to four. She joined a successful fight to swamp that plan, and later started the nonprofit she has run ever since.
Two more big victories included the fight against a proposed floating liquefied natural gas facility off the Ventura County coast and construction of a toll road through the park at San Onofre State Beach.
Upcoming decisions on Newport Banning Ranch and the Huntington Beach desalination plant "will be bellwethers" on how this commission thinks and where it's headed, Jordan said.
"What I want to see is a commission that takes pride in upholding the Coastal Act," said Jordan. "I want them to put up a hand and say this project doesn't meet the act and this is what you have to do to make it meet the requirements. I want to see a commission that works in collaboration with its staff. I want to see reform and I want to see [private meetings] banned because there's not a level playing field here."
In September, she will pack up her files in the kitchen nook, drive to the Coastal Commission hearing in Newport Beach, and make her presence known.
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