Coastal Protection in Question: How Strong is a Law You Can’t Enforce?

Mary Shallenberger

By Mary Shallenberger

Headline writers and newspaper editors love to refer to the Coastal Commission as the most “powerful” land use agency in the state. Countless articles have been written about the Commission’s legacy of denying high-profile projects such as offshore oil drilling, underwater acoustic testing, luxury golf resorts and the like. But while it’s true that the Coastal Act is a strong law that gives the Commission broad authority to protect public access, coastal wetlands, sensitive habitat, views and agriculture, there is a serious shortcoming in the statute that has been long overlooked. When it come

s to the question actually enforcing the law, the Coastal Commission may actually be the weakest state agency in California. That is why unresolved violations are piling up in the Commission’s files faster than we can resolve them.

How can that be? How is it possible that the Commission can block offshore oil drilling and prevent the construction of toll roads, LNG terminals, and luxury subdivisions, yet struggles to require polluters to clean up toxic waste sites, force commercial developers to remediate illegally disturbed Native American burial grounds, or make Malibu millionaires remove illegal gates across public paths to the beach?

The answer might surprise you.

Amazing as it seems, the Coastal Commission is the only state agency that does not have the ability to levy fines when someone breaks the law. That’s right. You can get fined for speeding, overdue library books, or owning unlicensed dogs. But if you fill a wetland, grade a mountaintop, bulldoze sand dunes, build a house without a permit or erect a gate across a public trail, the worst that will probably happen to you is you might have to put things back the way they were. Maybe. Someday. Or not.

That’s because only a court can impose a fine for violating the Coastal Act. This means the Commission has to file a lawsuit, and the Attorney General has to argue the case. This costs so much time and taxpayer dollars that the Commission has only initiated litigation in the most extreme cases: only four times in the last ten years. With nearly 2,000 open, unresolved violation cases in the Commission’s files, the reality is there isn’t much to persuade potential violators to follow the law. They know the benefit is worth the minimal risk. How many of us would obey the speed limit if the only consequence was a stern warning from the Highway Patrol, with no fines and no increase in insurance rates?

Worse, crimes against the environment can rarely be fully restored. When trees are cut down, when wetlands are filled, when breeding and spawning and nesting routines are interrupted, there is no practical way to recover those lost resources. And when the public is denied their rightful access to the coast for years at a time, there is no way to turn back the clock and re-create those coastal experiences that were stolen from them. This is why it is so important to stop Coastal Act violations before they start.

AB 976 by Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) would close this loophole in the law by giving the Coastal Commission the ability to levy fines directly. Alleged violators would get a chance to make their case at a fully noticed public hearing, with representation and the right to sue the Commission if they feel they have been treated unfairly. At least 20 other state agencies and virtually every local government already has this authority. Yet this is the third session in a row that the bill has been introduced. This year, a broad coalition of environmental groups has joined AB 976 sponsors PCL and Sierra Club to push back against the fear-mongering and misleading campaign tactics of the opposition that killed the two previous versions of the bill.

The outpouring of support for the bill indicates that Californians want the state to do more, not less, to protect the coast and their access to it. The Sac Bee, Modesto Bee and San Jose Mercury News have all endorsed the bill. The Monterey County Herald deemed the bill “easy to support.” And the Contra Costa Times has called it “perhaps the most important environmental legislation this year.”

And still, the passage of AB 976 is not assured. It needs at least 21 votes on the Senate Floor, and 41 in the Assembly before going to the Governor’s desk. If you haven’t contacted your legislators yet regarding this important bill, there’s still time to make your voice heard.

Mary Shallenberger is the Chair of the California Coastal Commission.  As a former advisor to the California Senate Pro Tem and lifelong environmental advocate, she has been invested in California policy and political issues related to natural resource and the environment throughout her long public service career.

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