California Coastal Commission: Give it teeth

The California Coastal Commission is charged with implementing the statutes of the Coastal Act, the law that was passed in 1976 to protect the state’s 1,100-mile coast, regulate development along it and ensure public access to it. But unlike many other state regulatory agencies, the commission does not have the power to impose fines on violators of the act.

A proposed law, AB 976, which passed the Assembly and is expected to come to the state Senate floor within days, would give the Coastal Commission authority to impose administrative civil penalties on people who intentionally violate the Coastal Act. The commission needs that authority to effectively carry out its work.

The commission enforces statutes approved by the Legislature, and it has a solid record of doing so judiciously. Decades of legislative action and judicial review plus city and county governments’ detailed local coastal plans (which must hew to the Coastal Act) inform how the commissioners enforce regulations. They are not making it up as they go, and there’s no reason to believe the power to administer fines would change that.

What it would change is the commission’s ability to get the attention of violators and force swift compliance with the Coastal Act.

The commission has a backlog of 1,944 violations that have not been resolved. Of those, nearly 29% are cases in which public access to the shore has been blocked. An additional 27% consist of unpermitted land alteration. An additional 24% are unpermitted developments in sensitive habitats. A third of the violations, 690, are in Los Angeles County. More than a quarter of all the state’s violations, 553, come from the Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu, where public access to the beaches has been a battle for decades.


Elsewhere, violations are varied and sometimes brazen. Developers of residential complexes have refused to build accessways even though their permits required it. Homeowners and others have stripped out vegetation without permission. Some have even used wetlands as garbage dumps.

Lacking the ability to issue tickets and fines, the Coastal Commission often has to wage tedious and protracted battles with developers and homeowners who violate the law and know that they can get away with it for years. Only the most egregious cases get taken to court, where fines can be imposed, and it can take a decade to get there.

The coast is a precious and shared resource, and the voters of California and the Legislature wanted it protected by law. It makes no sense to set up a commission to enforce that law and then give it no power to penalize those who break it. That can be rectified by passing AB 976.