By DAVID KRAVETS
Associated Press Writer
For nearly 30 years, the Coastal Commission has been charged with protecting California´s 1,100-mile coastline, from the soaring cliffs of Big Sur to the teeming wetlands of Bolsa Chica.
But the agency has made enemies along the way _ especially among seaside residents and real estate developers who say it routinely tramples on property rights and makes erratic decisions.
On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court was to debate whether the agency is an unconstitutional abuse of authority. Plaintiffs also want case-by-case reviews of 29 years of decisions, despite the potential legal chaos. Already, at least 23 coastal property owners are hoping to reopen their cases.
“Year after year, the Coastal Commission has displayed an unbridled arrogance against people living on the coast,” said James Burling, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for private property rights. “The Coastal Commission has perverted its initial mission into a power grab for itself.”
Peter Douglas, who has directed the commission for the past 20 years, said the panel must balance the intense pressure to develop the coast against its popular mandate of conservation and public access.
“The stakes for Californians and future generations are enormous. It´s the future of the coast,” he said. “Whether it continues to go in the direction of conservation and restoration, or whether we open the gates to pell-mell development.”
The commission, established by ballot measure in 1972 and made permanent by the California Coastal Act in 1976, makes key decisions on coastal development, public access, offshore drilling and marine habitat protection.
In the 1990s, it blocked plans to build a seaside resort proposed by the Hearst Corp. in San Luis Obispo County, as well as a major residential development in the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County. In the 1980s, it forced property owners to create easements allowing public access to the beaches _ a practice later condemned by the U.S. Supreme Court as “extortion.”
Critics say the commission shows little respect for property rights or coastal communities, making it difficult for beachfront owners to renovate their properties and overruling developments approved by cities and counties.
The case was brought by the Marine Forests Society, which was ordered by the commission to halt construction of an underwater reef outside Newport Beach Harbor. An appeals court blocked the commission´s order and declared the commission was illegally composed. The commission appealed to the Supreme Court.
The society wants the governor to appoint all or most of the commissioners, and give local governments more authority.
The state Supreme Court case will focus on the separation of powers doctrine, which requires an equilibrium among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The question is whether the commission is weighted too much toward the legislative branch, because eight of the 12 commissioners are appointed by lawmakers compared to four by the governor.