Bill adds teeth to Coastal Act: Fake ‘No Parking’ signs could draw fines

By Jason Hoppin

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 05/28/2013 06:43:37 PM PDT

SACRAMENTO — Forty years after the Coastal Act was born, it may finally be growing some teeth.

The state Legislature is set to vote on two bills that would toughen the enforcement arm of the state’s Coastal Commission, which oversees California’s 1,100 miles of coastline. The impacts could be wide-ranging, including fines over a rash of unofficial “No Parking” signs found near beaches throughout the county.

“They’re tools to help address the backlog of violations,” said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, author of one bill and co-sponsor of a second, saying staff at the commission cannot investigate all Coastal Act complaints. “They have to deal with the worst ones. They have to prioritize it.”

Take to court

Proposed by Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, AB 976 would allow the Coastal Commission to levy administrative fines for Coastal Act violations, something 21 other state agencies can do. Currently, the only remedy to address recalcitrant violators is to haul them into court.

“We need more staff to follow up on these things, but that’s a hard sell in the Legislature under the current budget,” said Sarah Christie, a lobbyist for the Coastal Commission. “These bills would convey some very common, typical, accepted enforcement tools that would help us do our job more effectively.”

There is a backlog of 1,867 Coastal Act complaints, up from 1,300 in 2009. The commission has five staffers to investigate all of them, and none in a district that covers the northern third of the state.

“It is our responsibility to be good stewards of the coast by providing a workable system for enforcing legal protections against those who would defile it,” Atkins, D-San Diego, said in announcing her bill.

Stone’s bill, AB 203, is also set for a vote on the Assembly floor this week. It would allow the commission to require landowners to fix existing Coastal Act violations as a condition of approving new projects.

Stone said that would allow applicants to get permits and the Coastal Commission to get the violation fixed.

“Everybody wants something, and in negotiations when everybody wants something, usually there’s a solution,” said Stone, a former Coastal Commission vice president.

The bills have drawn strong opposition from business and farm groups, and even the Western States Petroleum Association. Among them, the California Farm Bureau Federation and California Chamber of Commerce wield much influence in Sacramento.

“Allowing an administrative agency the power to act as the cop, the prosecutor and the judge is dangerous and irresponsible and creates a built-in conflict of interest,” Farm Bureau lobbyist John Gamper wrote in a letter opposing the bill.

At a Coastal Commission meeting earlier this month, about 75 farmers and ranchers showed up to complain about how the agency was enforcing the Coastal Act, suggesting it hire an agricultural specialist.

Fine fallacy

Christie said some of the claims being thrown at the Legislature — such as that the Coastal Commission would begin fining people for using the wrong color of gravel — are bunk.

“It’s hard to fight fantasy with factual arguments, which is what bill supporters have been trying to do up here for the last couple of weeks,” Christie said.

About 30 percent of the existing violation backlog has to do with coastal access issues. Those can be everything from blocked trails, to trails that were promised but never built, to even private security guards chasing beachgoers off public beaches.

A number of those are also “No Parking” signs posted by residents of beach areas who are essentially claiming a private ownership over a public right-of-way.

That is a long-standing problem in Santa Cruz County, either through improper signage or by actually building fences, homes or other structures into public streets. One county study found that, on average, homeowners were using up to 15 feet of public land on streets throughout the Pleasure Point neighborhood.

Falls to bottom

But with the Coastal Commission occupied with bigger issues — one case involves a homeowner who built his brand-new tennis courts in sensitive wetlands — “no parking” signs often fall to the bottom of the agency’s to-do list.

Christie said the complaints not only have to be verified, but their origins have to be researched, as well as who the responsible homeowner is and any relevant local laws.

“It’s not like we can just go knock on somebody’s door and say, ‘Take your sign down,’ ” said Christie, who said she hopes Atkins’ bill has a deterrent effect in getting people to honor the Coastal Act.

Stone’s bill addresses a controversial 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision that, for a quarter-century, has forced the Coastal Commission to look the other way on known violations on a property even as it considers new permit requests.

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