Commission to review site
The proposed relocation site for the Pebble Beach
Equestrian Center is one component of the Del Monte Forest
Plan, which has been sent to the Coastal Commission for
From the Monterey County Herald
Serving Monterey County and the Salinas
Monday, May 14, 2001
How the Coastal Commission operates
By AMY ETTINGER
Try building anything along the coastline of the Monterey
Peninsula and you'll soon learn who holds the power over
development in the state.
The California Coastal Commission, which is charged with
the responsibility of issuing permits for new buildings in
the coastal zone, has survived criticism and lawsuits from
environmentalists and developers alike since it was
established in 1972.
But a recent court ruling that deems the commission
unconstitutional appears to be the biggest threat yet to the
powerful panel. And with many large projects on the
Peninsula still requiring commission approval - from the
Pebble Beach Co.'s plans for the Del Monte Forest to the
proposed Ocean View Plaza in Monterey - the ruling has both
environmentalists and developers speculating about how the
commission will operate in the future.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Charles Kobayashi
ruled last month that the commission violates the state
Constitution's provisions on separation of powers because
two-thirds of the commissioners are appointed by the state
Legislature even though the commission is part of the
executive branch. The lawyers who successfully challenged
the commission's makeup argued that it essentially is a
legislative body making decisions that should be left to the
governor or his appointees.
Rather than disband the commission, however, the ruling
sets off appeals that could take two years to resolve,
according to Matt Rodriquez of the state Attorney General's
Office, which represents the commission. In the meantime,
the commission will continue to operate just as it has for
more than two decades.
Rodriquez said his office plans to file an appeal in the
next few weeks.
The lawsuit leading to Kobayashi's ruling was brought on
behalf of a group that created an artificial reef off
Newport Beach without commission approval.
The legal challenge focuses on the commission's makeup.
Four members of the commission are appointed by the Speaker
of the Assembly, four are appointed by the Senate Rules
committee and the governor appoints four voting members and
three non-voting members.
That creates a system of checks and balances that has
worked well, Executive Director Peter Douglas said last week
while in Monterey for the commission's monthly meeting. The
body moves its sessions up and down the coast each
Douglas said the judge's ruling was "very puzzling
because the commission has been operating with the structure
for nearly 30 years."
Other agencies in the state, including the San Francisco
Bay Conservancy and Development Commission, have a similar
makeup, he said.
The commission's vice chairman, Monterey County
Supervisor Dave Potter, was appointed by then-Speaker
During their Monterey meeting last week, commissioners
drafted a letter responding to the judge's ruling.
"The protection of California's coast is too important to
be under the control of one official who may not have the
best interest of the coast at heart," the letter says. "It
is vital that California preserve a strong, independent and
balanced Coastal Commission by retaining a proven, fair and
effective appointment process."
But Sacramento attorney Jeff Yazel, whose law firm
brought the suit, said the commission often overreaches its
authority and abuses its power.
Yazel said the commission staff "really runs the show"
and is more sympathetic to environmental groups than to
In a telephone interview, Yazel said he wants to reform
the commission, not shut it down.
He's pushing for all appointments to be made by the
governor. And he wants the Coastal Commission to only have
legislative power, with no authority to issue permits and
determine what gets built or demolished.
But Carmel Valley land-use lawyer Alexander Henson said
he thinks the commission will never be stripped of its
"The whole reason the Coastal Commission exists is
because local governments were not sufficiently attuned to
coastal protection and preservation," Henson said. "The only
way to maintain oversight of the local government is to have
a Coastal Commission with power to review permits."
Henson said he's never had a problem with the way the
commission operates, but thinks concrete terms of office
should be established for commissioners. All the
commissioners are appointed to two-year terms but serve at
the will of whichever body appoints them. Commissioners have
been removed from office for not voting the way the
appointing authority wanted.
Term limits on politicians who appoint commissioners
cause a high turnover on the commission, said Chairwoman
Sara Wan. She said it takes about a year and a half just to
get familiar with the regulations.
Wan said she thinks the commission's tumultuous history -
with members being yanked mid-meeting - is all in the
But Salinas land-use attorney Tony Lombardo said he
thinks the commission's makeup puts the members under
tremendous political pressure. Lombardo, who has
successfully sued the commission to overturn a decision,
also said there should be more avenues for appealing
"The way the system is set up, basically the little guy
doesn't have a chance," Lombardo said.
It isn't just developers who have been critical of the
Coastal Commission's actions. Attorney Mark Massara of the
Sierra Club has said the commission is failing to preserve
important wetland areas in the state.
"At least half of the commission has seriously strayed
from any meaningful coastal protection ethic," Massara wrote
in a newsletter. He specifically criticized the commission
for approving plans for a Watsonville high school to be
built along wetlands west of that city.
But in the aftermath of Kobayashi's ruling, Massara
backtracked and said the Sierra Club will support the
commission's legal battle to preserve the current system. He
said the agency has been able to maintain a balance and that
the suit represents hostility to coastal protection
Wan, the chairwoman, said the Coastal Commission is
needed now more than ever. For one thing, she said, it is
the only authority that can regulate oil drilling in federal
waters off the California coast.
She said many people don't realize the significance of
the commission's work because some of its most important
decisions involve stopping development.
"Our biggest victories," she said, "are what we don't
Amy Ettinger can be reached at 646-4494.
Copyright (c) 2001, The Monterey County
Herald, 8 Ragsland Drive, Monterey CA. 93940 (831)
A Knight Ridder Newspaper