By Christa Bigue
For four decades, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) has lobbied for the power to fine anyone who violates laws protecting beach habitat and public access — and any day now they may just get it.
A proposed law, AB 976, which passed the Assembly and was expected to come to the state Senate floor last Friday, would give the Coastal Commission authority to impose administrative civil penalties on people who intentionally violate 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. If AB 976 passes in the Legislature, it’s not known whether the governor will sign the bill.
Lacking the ability to issue tickets and fines, the Coastal Commission for years has had to engage in costly and extended legal battles to penalize developers and homeowners who violate the law. In other words, the commission has had "no teeth" in enforcing the law, until possibly now.
AB 976 by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins would give the CCC power to impose fines on violators of the act without having to litigate an alleged violation. Another amendment would authorize the CCC to continue enforcement actions filed prior to the bill’s possible sunset date of January 1, 2019.
Violations of the Coastal Act are varied and sometimes brazen. Developers of residential complexes have refused to build access ways even though their permits required it. Homeowners and others have stripped out vegetation without permission. And here and there along the California Coast it’s not too uncommon to find fences or “no trespassing” signs blocking public access to the coastline nearby beachfront property owners. According to a report from the Surfrider Foundation, the largest category of Coastal Act violations — almost one-third — involves illegally blocking public access to the coast.
Take, for example, the coastal ends of 5th and 7th streets in Montara, which are walled off and have been developed with landscaping and a private property sign. Members of the Midcoast Community Council (MCC) are concerned that these private encroachments into the public right-of-way are diminishing this coastal access, providing the homeowner a private gated part of the beach, which violates the Coastal Act.
“We still await a letter from CCC staff in support of the issue of blocked coastal access on county streets and undeveloped rights of way in Montara. There has been no violation notice as of yet,” said MCC president Lisa Ketcham, who spearheaded with Montara resident Karen Wilson a petition to the San Mateo County Supervisors to restore and protect public coastal access via Montara's streets.
Another applicable local issue is La Costanera restaurant in Montara, which has outstanding Coastal Act violations they've ignored since 2011 in spite of a series of letters from CCC staff, said Ketcham. The only thing they addressed was the floodlights on the beach in response to Coastside resident Kevin Stokes' change.org petition.
Even though the California Coastal Act declares that the public has rights to beach access — not just the people who own homes and businesses along the coast — there are more than 1,800 backlogged enforcement cases currently pending before the Commission of which nearly 29 percent are cases in which public access to the shore has been blocked, according to the CCC. These violations have the potential to be rectified by passing AB 976.
The bill's backers argue that the Commission should have direct control over fining transgressors, hamstringing the agency's efforts to protect the state's coastlines. But a coalition of businesses oppose the bill, and that group says fines levying by the Commission would diminish due process and could lead to abuse, citing that the Commission already has enough regulatory power as is, and doing away with court oversight would leave coastal property owners and businesses faced with hefty penalties with little legal recourse.
Would giving the Coastal Commission the power to impose and collect fines without court approval help it to protect the state's coastlines, lessening costly and extended legal battles to penalize offenders? Or do you think the bill gives the California Coastal Commission too much power and that it's too easy to abuse, imposing costly fees and road blocks for alleged violations with not enough oversight to manage this type of power?
Tell us in the comments if you support AB 976.