The California Coastal Commission: It’s critically important, but it increasingly overreaches

oversized vehicles park on Santa Cruz's Westside
Mike Rotkin sees overruling the Santa Cruz City Council on parking regulations for oversized vehicles as an example of overreach by the California Coastal Commission.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The California Coastal Commission keeps our beaches and scenic views accessible to all, and that is a good thing, writes Lookout political columnist Mike Rotkin, who fought to pass the 1976 Coastal Act that followed the commission’s establishment. But Rotkin does wonder why the commission is weighing in on so many recent issues in Santa Cruz — from hotels to oversized vehicle parking — and suggests commissioners might be setting rules in Santa Cruz that don’t apply to other communities, including Carmel and Monterey.

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Mike Rotkin

Most Californians support regulating development on the coast and therefore view the California Coastal Commission as a significantly good thing.

One has only to visit the East Coast, where private development often keeps citizens from enjoying what should be public beaches and views, to appreciate what our Coastal Commission — created over 50 years ago — does to maintain public access to a resource that belongs to all of the people, and not just those wealthy enough to buy such access.

Many beaches in Florida can be accessed only by walking through a hotel, and others can’t be accessed at all, since one would have to trespass through a private residence to many beaches.

I worked hard In the early 1970s to get the California Coastal Act passed (1976) and have not regretted my activism on the issue a single day since.

That being said, I am also certain that I am not alone in believing that the Coastal Commission — which has 12 voting members, six local officials and six members of the public — often oversteps its original mandate to protect coastal access and that it often makes decisions to overrule local governmental decision-makers that have little to do with protecting coastal access.

The Coastal Commission often makes significantly different decisions about similar cases depending on the community involved. These decisions appear based more on the relative wealth of communities than on some more equitable and universal principles.

When the Coastal Commission first began its work in the 1970s, most commissioners, local governmental officials and the public thought its mandate was essentially to weigh in on development projects that might physically limit access to the beaches. Because there were concerns that certain kinds of development on riparian corridors (streams and rivers) leading into the bays and ocean might negatively affect water quality, the commission was also given final jurisdiction over development on fingers of land near riparian corridors running inland for significant distances.

This made total sense.

But over time, the commission began taking final control over aesthetic and social justice issues at locations far from the ocean or bays and that have little, if any, impact on coastal access, coastal views or water quality.

It’s not that aesthetic design and social justice are not important issues. They are. What is not clear is why the Coastal Commission’s views on these matters, when they are not proximate to the coast, should take precedence over the decisions of locally elected officials from the communities where the projects are located.

When, for example, proposed projects that are on the inland side of roads running along the coast, and those projects sit behind existing development closer to the ocean, why is the Coastal Commission a better judge of design issues involved than local planning agencies and elected officials?

A classic example of this was the 2009 fight over the replacement of the La Bahia Hotel in Santa Cruz (a decision now made moot by current development on the site). This was essentially a fight over the percentage of union labor used in the construction of the project. Without going into the gory details of that battle, it remains a complete mystery why the Coastal Commission felt justified in weighing in on this issue at all.

Huntington Beach residents celebrate as the California Coastal Commission rejects a plan to build a desalination plan
Huntington Beach residents celebrate the California Coastal Commission’s May 2022 rejection of a plan to build a desalination plant.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

With respect to social justice issues, an example of Coastal Commission overreach would be the decision to overrule the Santa Cruz City Council on its ordinance banning oversized vehicle overnight parking on city streets. While it would not be unreasonable for the Coastal Commission to weigh in on a city’s decision banning general public parking near public beaches, or charging high parking fees that prohibited working people or the poor from being able to afford visiting the beaches, it’s not clear why the Coastal Commission felt it had the authority to essentially make free overnight parking on city streets a subject of its jurisdiction.

Not all of this parking was even about the needs of unhoused individuals, whatever one’s views on that matter might be, since many of the owners of large recreational vehicles were just tourists trying to avoid paying the parking fees at existing campgrounds in nearby state and private RV camping areas.

But whether this is about tourists avoiding park fees or shelter for the homeless, why is the Coastal Commission the group to make decisions about this issue?

Even more outrageous is the way different communities are treated with respect to these issues.

The Coastal Commission would never dare tell the wealthy enclaves of Pacific Grove, Carmel or even Monterey what they can or cannot do with respect to overnight parking of large recreational vehicles on public streets; however, Santa Cruz is perceived as a less elite community, where the commission might even get some public support for its decision to allow RV parking on city streets.

I have not done a systematic study, but it is pretty apparent to me that the Coastal Commission makes decisions that encourage, if not require, low-income hotel, motel and vacation rentals in Santa Cruz that it would never impose on the wealthy communities of the Monterey Peninsula.

Having looked pretty closely at the issue, it remains unclear to me whether these kinds of decisions are primarily driven by Coastal Commission staff or the appointed members of the commission. It appears this varies from region to region in California and over time.

But even more confusing is why the courts and the legislature have allowed the gradual accretion of power by the Coastal Commission that appears to go far beyond the initial mandate of the agency.

One answer is that suits against decisions are rare. This is probably the result of a combination of general support for the mission (nobody wants to appear to be against coastal protection), the high cost of mounting such appeals, and a fear of potential retaliation against those filing suits (to be fair, with no clear examples that such retaliation has actually occurred).

The question, however, remains, whether or not the commission will at some point make a decision that is so far from its initial mandate that some community will be willing to challenge what appears to be an unreasonable example of mission creep or overreach by the Coastal Commission.

Mike Rotkin has lived in Santa Cruz since 1969 and teaches at UCSC. He is a five-time former mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. His previous piece for Lookout appeared in February.

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