2017 California Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card

From ActCoastal

By | Published 2018/05/06

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Commentary is provided by ActCoastal partners.

This blog represents the views of the authors, and does not necessarily reflect the positions of ActCoastal and its partner organizations.

About the 2017 California Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card

The annual California Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card focuses on high stakes coastal projects and concerns. When it comes to coastal development, the interests of private parties are often pitted against the public values enshrined in California’s Coastal Act. At times, these conflicts place Commissioners under intense political pressure. Transparency and accountability are therefore essential to ensure the Commission is upholding the Coastal Act and defending the public’s rights. The California Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card is designed to help provide both.

Using the Coastal Act as a guide, the 2017 California Coastal Commission Conservation Report Card ranks the voting record of each Coastal Commissioner on the most significant permit applications and enforcement actions considered by the Commission. The score represents the ratio of pro-conservation votes to total votes cast in the selected agenda items chosen by ActCoastal member organizations and other community advocates based on the following:

  • A vote’s potential impacts on critical coastal resources or values, such as environmentally sensitive habitat or public access;
  • A vote’s potential economic value and impacts on the communities that would be affected by the vote; and
  • A vote’s potential to set statewide precedent.

This report provides detailed descriptions of the issues and resources affected by each 2017 vote, as well as the voting record of each individual Commissioner and his or her alternate.

Click here for past Vote Charts.

These voting records have been compared with the official records kept by the Coastal Commission; however, any errors are the sole responsibility of the preparers.

The average 2017 conservation score for the California Coastal Commission overall was 73%, up from 65% in 2016 and 47% in 2015, but below the Commission’s all-time high score of 76% in 1997.

Individual Commissioner Scores

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A Comparison of Scores by Appointing Body

Senate Rules Committee appointments (81%)

  • Sara Aminzadeh – 100%*
  • Aaron Peskin – 82%
  • Dayna Bochco – 75%
  • Roberto Uranga – 67%

Assembly Speaker appointments: (72%, up from 64% in 2016)

  • Mary Luévano – 85%
  • Carole Groom – 81%
  • Mark Vargas – 72%
  • Steve Padilla – 50%*

Governor-appointed commissioners (66%)

  • Effie Turnbull-Sanders – 76%
  • Donne Brownsey – 69%
  • Erik Howell – 68%
  • Ryan Sundberg – 50%

(* New Commissioner serving six months or fewer in 2017)

Click here for past Vote Charts.

Commission Turnover

Due to a combination of election losses, term expirations and a resignation, 2017 saw an unusual amount of turnover on the Commission with five new commissioners sworn in (and two reappointments).

Governor Jerry Brown selected Donne Brownsey of Fort Bragg to replace Coastal Commissioner Wendy Mitchell of Los Angeles, who resigned in late 2016 in the midst of alleged undisclosed meetings with developers, a violation of transparency rules. Governor Brown also selected incumbent Coastal Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders to be the panel’s environmental justice representative — a position created by legislation in September 2016.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León appointed San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin to fill the commission seat of former Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who retired from public office. Governor Brown selected Ryan Sundberg, a member of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors since 2010, to replace Martha McClure, who was forced to leave the commission because she was not reelected to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors last November.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon appointed Chula Vista City Councilmember Steve Padilla to the Coastal Commission to replace San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, whose term expired. He also reappointed Commissioner Carole Groom, a member of the San Mateo County Supervisors.

Senate Pro Tem de Léon appointed Sara Aminzadeh, Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, to fill a public seat.

Moving forward
This all followed a particularly tumultuous time in the Commission’s history. In 2016, the panel fired the agency’s then-executive director Charles Lester against massive public outcry and despite the opposition of state and federal legislators, scientists and academics, and over 90 of Lester’s own staff. The firing brought the Commission under increased media scrutiny and renewed public interest in the agency. A year later, the Commission selected Jack Ainsworth, a career agency official who had been acting as interim director, to replace Lester.

The new appointments ushered in in a substantially different dynamic than that of the panel that fired Lester, and an improvement is apparent in 2017 with 16 “good” conservation outcomes and only 5 “bad” conservation outcomes. The theme of coastal access, including 10 votes on shoreline armoring issues, continued to prevail.

Coastal Preservation and Access

Both the California Constitution and the Coastal Act establish the right for all Californians to access the shore. Ensuring this right for all Californians requires recognizing a growing and diversifying coastal population, continued development pressure and, increasingly, sea level rise and coastal hazards.

In 2017, the Coastal Commission took several important actions to preserve public land and public resources. Preservation is an access issue at heart, given that public land such as beaches, coastal trails and parks must continue to exist for access to remain possible. Examples include: the shutdown of the CEMEX sand mine, the rejection of a permit to develop Newport Banning Ranch, the restoration of Crystal Cove State Park, the dedication of 36 acres of Cojo Jalama Ranch to Santa Barbara County, and the protection of ESHA at Lawson’s Landing.

Examples of Positive Coastal Preservation Outcomes

In July, a much-anticipated violation case came before the California Coastal Commission. Monterey Coast residents had long argued that CEMEX’s sand mine was the reason their coastline has been eroding faster than anywhere else in the state. In March 2016, after years of urging by community members and the accumulation of scientific evidence, the Coastal Commission’s enforcement division informed CEMEX that a cease-and-desist order was imminent. Settlement discussions between the sand mining corporation and Commission staff followed and, after much negotiation, a settlement was reached. The agreement requires that CEMEX cease sand mining on the property after three years, prevents any increase in mining during that time, binds CEMEX to full restoration of the property, and ensures that the property be transferred to a public or nonprofit agency for management upon closure of the mine. Commissioners unanimously approved the settlement and thus marked a momentous and historic decision in support of coastal protection.Controversial Beachfront Sand Mining Operation Along Monterey Bay to Close

Years of enforcement negotiations regarding unpermitted development activities on the Cojo and Jalama Ranches, which occupy an 11-mile swath of coastline on either side of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, resulted in a remarkable win for the public. As part of the settlement, the owners (an investment group that include Boston-based hedge fund the Baupost Group) were required to transfer approximately 36 acres of coastal property south of Jalama Beach to Santa Barbara’s County Parks to expand the campground and park area, and to pay $500,000 to the Commission’s “violation remediation account.” Couple donates $165 million to preserve 24,000 acres at Point Conception

Coastal Armoring

In addition to coastal preservation, shoreline armoring persisted as a major public access issue in 2017. Study after study arrives at the same conclusion: a significant percentage of California’s beaches will disappear due to sea level rise and climate change effects in the coming decades. Will rising seas eventually devour California's beachfront homes? As a result, private property owners and municipalities continue to turn to hard armoring to protect homes and infrastructure, despite the fact that fixed structures (rocks, walls, revetments) on the shoreline increase the rate of coastal erosion, in turn leading to the loss of sandy beach, destruction of habitat and adverse impacts to nearshore recreational resources.

In August, Commission staff released draft Residential Adaptation Guidelines for local governments struggling to address the challenges and impacts of sea level rise. Residential development is one of the most prevalent types of development within the coastal zone and also poses one of the most controversial management challenges, making the Guidance extremely important in advancing sea level rise adaptation: In order to protect public access, we must prolong the life of our beaches, not hasten their end. Therefore, the Commission needs to improve coastal armoring policies and practices by certifying the Residential Adaptation Guidelines and incorporating these into their permitting decisions. The Commission will consider final guidelines for approval in 2018.

Commissioners considered several armoring throughout the year, provoking much discussion on the dais. At the December hearing on a vote to deny an armoring project in Solana Beach, Commissioner Aaron Peskin acknowledged approving the project would move forward obtrusive shoreline armoring practices while Commissioner Mary Luevano observed that the state doesn’t have much time to adapt to sea level rise. In November, Commissioner Mark Vargas voted against shoreline armoring at Sharp Park Golf Course in San Francisco, saying that it is time to start taking seriously the Commission’s 2015 Sea Level Rise Guidance , which concludes that armoring is not a viable strategy for climate change adaptation. “A seawall is a seawall is a seawall,” Vargas said.

While the conversation regarding shoreline armoring, the importance of planning for sea level rise and the need to have the guidance codified in the form of regulations has advanced, this is still not consistently reflected in the Commission’s votes. One of the most egregious problems is that of approving after-the-fact authorizations of previously illegally constructed shoreline armoring structures. By allowing originally unpermitted development to remain permanent, the Commission effectively ratifies negative impacts to public access and perpetuates unsustainable climate adaptation strategies.

Examples of Negative Coastal Armoring Outcomes

This permit amendment revised the special conditions for a 256-foot shoreline armoring structure in Solana Beach previously approved by the Commission in 2010. The armoring was originally permitted for 20 years to protect pre-Coastal Act development, but the amendment now authorizes the seawall and concrete backfill for the life of the bluff top homes. This removes the opportunity for a future Commission to reevaluate the seawall as sea level rise and beach erosion increase over time. 

The Commission voted to approve new seawall construction in Del Mar in place of shoreline armoring first installed illegally in 1987 and then expanded under an emergency permit in 2015, missing a chance to set an important precedent on interim seawall policy.

Despite years of documented Coastal Act violations including the illegal expansion of a sand berm, the Commission voted to approve San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department’s application to retain armoring at Sharp Park in order to protect Sharp Park Golf Course, sacrificing access to and along the beach in the name of protecting access “near” the beach.

Coastal Commission votes are also monitored and reviewed on a monthly basis. Monthly Vote Charts and descriptions of key votes are provided for public review at ActCoastal.org. The ActCoastal Vote Chart is produced by Surfrider Foundation, WiLDCOAST/COSTASALVAjE and Environment California, in cooperation with ActCoastal and California’s conservation community.

Coastal Commission background

The California Coastal Commission is an independent state agency originally created by citizen initiative in 1972 and made permanent by the California Coastal Act of 1976. The Commission’s mission is to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.

The Commission is comprised of 12 voting members (and up to 12 alternates) appointed by the Governor, Senate Rules Committee and Assembly Speaker. Each appoints four commissioners, two from the general public and two from among local elected officials. The elected commissioners must be representative of the state’s six regions ranging from San Diego to the North Coast.

The Commission meets monthly and reviews up to 1,000 projects a year.