State Assembly Bill would give Coastal Commission ‘teeth,’ power to levy fines in La Jolla and elsewhere
■ What: Gives the California Coastal Commission the power to impose fines on Coastal Act violators
■ Potential fines: $750 to $1,250 per day (75 percent of what a court may impose)
■ Author: State Assemblymember Toni Atkins (D-78)
■ Status: Passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee April 16
By Pat Sherman
Legislation authored by La Jolla’s new state Assembly representative, Toni Atkins (D-78), would give the California Coastal Commission (CCC) the authority to levy fines against people who violate the California Coastal Act.
It is also hoped to deter others considering violating the law, enacted in 1976 to protect resources along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline.
The CCC has more than 1,800 open enforcement cases — and new violations are reported faster than the commission’s approximately 130-member staff can resolve existing cases.
Common violations of the Coastal Act include development completed without a permit, such as a swimming pool, tennis court or entire structure, and the dumping of gray-water and household or industrial waste.
Currently, the CCC may only issue cease- and-desist orders to violators who refuse to correct a problem. To enforce those orders, if ignored, the commission must pursue litigation through the California Attorney General’s office — a costly, time-consuming process that has only been done four times in the last decade.
“Those who choose to ignore the coastal commission basically get a free ride, unless the attorney general agrees to take the case,” Atkins said.
Atkins’ legislation, AB 976, would give the CCC the same ability to impose fines already in place at other environmental agencies, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly the Department of Fish and Game), the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Energy Commission.
Since CCC staff does not monitor the coast (and wouldn’t under AB 976) violations are reported to the CCC by individuals, or occasionally local governments, CCC Legislative Director Sarah Christie said.
“All our violations are reported by a third party, or are commission compliance violations where we’ve authorized development consistent with certain conditions, and then they don’t meet the conditions of their permit.”
When a complaint is lodged, CCC staff first work to verify that there is evidence of a violation, Christie said.
“If there is evidence that a violation is taking place, then we notify the property owner, typically in writing,” she said. “We invite them to either demonstrate that the development is not unpermitted or work with us to resolve the violation locally.”
Only a fraction of Coastal Act violators refuse to cooperate with the CCC, though these cases are difficult for the agency to enforce under current law, Christie said.
“If you’re benefiting (financially) from unpermitted development and there’s no penalty for dragging your feet, you can just hire lawyers to fight with the coastal commission for years and keep public access blocked — and that’s exactly what happens,” she said. “They have no problem throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into attorney (fees).”
The majority of violators claim they did not know a permit was required and offer to correct the error, or seek the required coastal development permit for their development, if it is allowed by law, Christie said.
About half of Coastal Act violations in urban areas like La Jolla involve people blocking public access to the shoreline — via fences, gates, boulders, landscaping or even ‘no trespassing’ signs.
“That’s a very common tactic,” Christie said. “There’s no end to the amount of creativity that people will apply when they want to prevent the public from getting to the beach.”
Christie said AB 976 would have no affect on the seal rope barrier controversy at Children’s Pool beach. Some claim the rope barrier — intended to keep the public a safe distance from harbor seals — violates the Coastal Act by deterring the public from legally accessing the shoreline at Children’s Pool.
“This bill only applies to enforcement actions that the commission takes,” Christie said, noting that the CCC approved a coastal development permit for a year-round rope at Children’s pool. A judge also ruled this month in favor of a city permit for the year-round rope.
In addition, AB 976, as currently written, does not allow the commission to fine a “local government, special district or an agency thereof,” such as the San Diego City Council, for blocking beach access.
Sacramento-based property rights attorney and Coastal Act expert Tim Kassouni said he feels the legislation would give a CCC “essentially drunk on its own power” the ability to act as “judge, jury and executioner.”
“The coastal commission has not shown the ability or capacity of policing itself when it comes to due process or constitutional safeguards,” Kassouni said, noting his opposition to the CCC being able to impose fines with no judicial review process.
However, Atkins rejects the claim that the Coastal Commission is “overly aggressive,” and said protections in her bill keep the CCC’s powers in check.
All fines levied must be approved by a majority vote of the commissioners at a publicly noticed hearing. Once imposed, those fines can be challenged in court, she said.
“There’s due process … there’s transparency,” Atkins said. “Some bureaucratic agency isn’t just leveling fines.” AB 976 caps fines at 75 percent of the amount that can be sought through the courts, about $1,000 to $15,000 per day.
The first $1.5 million collected each year will go to the California Coastal Conservancy’s “violation remediation” account, which funds projects and programs that mitigate violations, such as wetland restoration and public access improvements, Christie said. Anything beyond $1.5 million will flow back to the CCC, though Christie said it would be rare for the commission to impose more than $1.5 million in fines per year.
The CCC is funded largely through the state’s general fund, and also receives reimbursement from other agencies and the federal government.
AB 976 passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee April 16 and will be heard next by the Appropriations Committee.
The CCC is currently reviewing four open cases of Coastal Act violations in La Jolla, Christie said, though she declined to provide further details.
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