Coastal agency power play slyly advances

Budget trailer bill will include controversial ‘fining’ language
By Steven Greenhut8:26 a.m.May 23, 2014 ⎙ Print

Environmentalist Jim Brown, right, uses a bear’s inability to speak to exemplify “animals rights,” as he addresses the California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Monica, Calif. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The California Coastal Commission is weighing whether to grant a permit to the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to conduct seismic imaging off the coast of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) ¡X AP6


SACRAMENTO ¡X Call it the prerogatives of power. In one of her first major actions since becoming the Assembly¡¦s new speaker, Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, has brought back a version of a controversial bill that has been one of her priorities ¡X but in a surreptitious manner that circumvents the full process for advancing such legislation.

AB 976 would give the California Coastal Commission the muscle to impose daily civil penalties on homeowners that it believes have intentionally violated the state¡¦s coastal act ¡X the 1972 initiative that created the commission to regulate land use along the coastline.

The commission already wields much power in approving development projects in the ¡§coastal zone.¡¨ It¡¦s known for exacting concessions from owners by forcing them to, say, allow additional public beach easements or alter a planned design in exchange for a permit. But it must take property owners to court before fining them for violating its edicts.

The commission¡¦s staff argues that going to court is ¡§very slow, expensive, and resource-intensive process,¡¨ according to an Assembly analysis.

So Atkins wants to let the staff just skip this (due) process and unilaterally impose fines on people whose homes, sheds or fences allegedly run afoul of a permit. Property owners could still go to court ¡X but the onus would be on them to prove the commission is wrong, even as fines that can reach thousands of dollars a day send the property into foreclosure.

The bill failed on the Assembly floor, with even some environmentally friendly Democrats taking a pass. The legislation was granted reconsideration, which means that it could come back again. With Atkins as speaker, the question was ¡§when.¡¨ The real question should have been ¡§how.¡¨

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On Thursday, an Assembly budget subcommittee voted yes on a placeholder ¡§trailer¡¨ bill that would give the commission a more limited authority to impose administrative fines. In recent weeks, the Legislature has been passing a rash of open-ended budget trailer bills that are meant to put into law portions of the complex state budget and can therefore get approved on the fast-track.

But non-budget-related issues get plopped into these bills, also. The goal is to get them passed as quickly and with as little scrutiny as possible. For instance, this trailer was a ¡§vote only¡¨ ¡X the committee allowed no discussions, witnesses or debates. The measure calls for language that is more narrowly tailored than AB 976, although no one will really know until the actual language emerges.

This an example of ¡§reckless lawmaking and the abuse of a process that ought to be thorough and transparent,¡¨ said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, in an interview on Thursday. Substance-wise, he sees it is an example of the type of policy ¡§that is making the people of California afraid of their own government¡¨ because of its vast expansion of an agency¡¦s power.

The Assembly staff explains that the trailer-bill language ¡§would be narrowly tailored to address intentional violations of public access to the California coastline.¡¨ This allows fines to be levied only in those instances that involve public-access issues, so this revision might cause some of AB 976¡¦s original critics to back down.

But narrowing the language doesn’t provide much more protection given that these public-access disputes are common, said Damien Schiff, an attorney with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which has battled the commission in court. And that term “can be interpreted in a very broad way,” he added.

Schiff fears that if this bill becomes law, property owners will no longer have any leverage with the agency “” even if they are wrongly accused of violating the coastal act. It would just be too expensive and risky to fight.

Atkins’ spokesman told me that using a trailer bill is a common process for bills that involve fines and that the measure still, ultimately, needs the votes of 41 Assembly members. He said her use of a trailer bill was a sign of finesse. But I’m left wondering what it says about the priorities of the new Assembly leadership in terms of actual policy “” and the means used to achieve it.

Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego.