Quick Take:

District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings earned an influential statewide role in March when Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon chose him to serve on the vastly powerful California Coastal Commission. He spoke with Lookout as he looks ahead to the big issues, both local and statewide, he will be responsible for addressing.

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When the statewide California Coastal Commission convenes Wednesday for its three-day April meeting, Santa Cruz County will have a local voice on the 12-member dais for the first time in 11 years.

A Q&A with County Supervisor Justin Cummings

Just two weeks ago, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced he would appoint District 3 County Supervisor Justin Cummings to the vastly powerful Coastal Commission to represent Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Mateo counties. Cummings will serve until May 2025, and then his position will be at the mercy of whoever sits in the speaker’s chair — Central Coast/Salinas Valley Assemblymember Robert Rivas will take over as speaker later this year for an open-ended term.

The Coastal Commission is tasked with upholding the California Coastal Act, which, passed in 1976, seeks to regulate development along the 1,100-mile coastal zone and protect public access to the coast for all Californians. The commission has been called the most powerful land-use authority in the U.S. given its purview over the highly desirable and environmentally valuable California coast.

Cummings’ appointment comes at a critical moment for Santa Cruz County as it figures out how to address the impacts of sea-level rise and climate change. It is similarly critical for the Coastal Commission, as it wrestles with how to uphold the Coastal Act tenets of public access as sea-level rise transforms the coastline, and climate change and population growth increase the need for coastal resources (such as land for housing and water through desalination plants).

Ahead of his application to the Coastal Commission, Cummings told me he felt his academic background — he has a Ph.D. in environmental science — along with his experience as an elected official and passion for protecting the environment and expanding access to the coast made him a good candidate to serve on the commission.

The agendas for Cummings’ first two monthly meetings on the Coastal Commission will include Santa Cruz-specific issues, which is not necessarily a guarantee in any given month. This week, the Coastal Commission will vote on whether to allow tiny homes on wheels as a housing type in Santa Cruz County’s slice of the coastal zone — that one is a fairly innocuous issue.

Then, in May, Cummings will see one of the defining issues of his time on Santa Cruz City Council come before him as a coastal commissioner — Santa Cruz’s oversized vehicle ordinance, and whether the city’s measure to ban recreational vehicles without a permit on city streets between midnight and 5 a.m. is valid. The ordinance, passed in 2021, has since been held up after it was appealed to the Coastal Commission to make a final determination. Cummings was one of two councilmembers to vote against the ordinance, and will now be on the body that will decide its fate. I asked Cummings how he’s thinking about this unique turn of events. He declined to answer.

I caught up with Cummings on Tuesday, one day before his inaugural Coastal Commission meeting. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: You’re an elected Santa Cruz County supervisor specifically selected to represent the Central Coast on a statewide commission because you aligned with the values of the current Assembly speaker (who is on his way out this year). The Coastal Commission is also tasked with upholding the California Coastal Act. That’s a long list of interests. Who are you accountable to as a commissioner?

Justin Cummings: It’s all of the above. The appointment is for an elected official. So the electorate of Santa Cruz County put me in a position where I could be considered by the speaker of the Assembly to uphold the coastal act. It’s all of the above.

Lookout: Do you see the Coastal Commission as policy-setting or policy-interpreting?

Cummings: I’m still learning about that. There is an interpretation, but I’m trying to learn more about the policy, which I do believe it plays a role in as well.

Lookout: What do you see as the big local issues that will come into play during your time on the Coastal Commission?

Cummings: How we address sea-level rise is going to be a big one, whether it’s armoring or managed retreat, those are going to be challenging decisions on the policy front, and, I imagine, the Coastal Commission will be trying to take some kind of stance on that. A lot of desalination projects are coming up as well, and addressing water security in general is going to be big. I would imagine development in general, since we have the regional housing needs allocations. If there is proposed development in the Coastal Commission, we will have to rule on those appeals at the commission.

Justin Cummings after his swearing-in to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in December 2022.
Justin Cummings after his swearing-in to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in December 2022. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lookout: How do you view developments in the coastal zone, especially in coastal communities like Santa Cruz where the housing need is so great?

Cummings: I don’t know how to answer that question in this capacity. I’m still trying to understand the role the Coastal Commission plays when it comes to housing.

Lookout: What is your hesitancy in answering the question? You have been a local official here and the issue has come up. Do you feel like you have to take a different view on it as a commissioner than you would as a city councilmember or county supervisor?

Cummings: That’s what I’m still trying to learn. There are certain conditions local bodies can put on projects before they’re passed. I’m still in the early phases and trying to learn what authority the Coastal Commission actually has.

Lookout: There has been criticism locally that the Coastal Commission has overstepped its influence on local issues. You were a councilmember and mayor in Santa Cruz, and now a county supervisor; do you agree with that criticism?

Cummings: I see the Coastal Commission as a body that is really trying to make sure the coast is accessible to all Californians, including those who have been historically excluded from coastal communities.

I think there are disagreements on what development access looks like along the coast. I largely see the Coastal Commission as a body that can have the opportunity to weigh in. Sometimes it agrees with appellants and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people may not like the system of checks and balances, but I think it helps. When there is a deciding body that is in favor of development or production, the ability to have another body weigh in, I think, is really critical.

Lookout: So you see that criticism as just a disagreement with the Coastal Commission’s rulings rather than actual overreach?

Cummings: Yeah.

Lookout: Where are your thoughts on managed retreat versus armoring the coastline against sea-level rise?

Cummings: It’s really project-dependent, and it’s really instance-specific. If it’s something as minor as a light patching of the coastline, OK, that might make more sense. But it’s different if you’re going to put up a retaining wall to protect a bunch of private homes and it’s going to result in water being diverted in such a way that it erodes a beach, and you’re putting a lot of public money into protecting private homes, and you have a loss of habitat and access for other people. In that instance, do you move forward with trying to protect that property or do you move forward with trying to protect the public access? That’s where difficult decisions come into play.

Lookout: Do you see your responsibility as upholding the values of the commission as they exist right now, or will you to bring your own values to the commission and vote by those?

Cummings: The one thing at the forefront is upholding the Coastal Act. I think all the commissioners will bring different values, so it’s really going to be trying to understand where each of us is coming from as we’re making decisions on various topics.

Lookout: Do you think it is protection of public access or protection of natural resources that is the weightier consideration?

Cummings: Since I haven’t really been on the commission that long, I don’t really know. It comes down to different commissioners and their interpretations.

Lookout: Which one is more weighty for you?

Cummings: It’s both, and that’s why I say it’s project-dependent. In some instances, armoring might actually lead to the preservation of a habitat and increase public access. It depends on what the armoring is for and where the armor is located. It’s really case-dependent.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...