Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 45
Significant and unavoidableResidents, officials, and lobbyists court California coastal commissioners as they deliver judgment on high-profile local projects
By MATT FOUNTAIN AND NICK POWELL
The mighty Greek deity Zeus presided over his council of gods atop Mount Olympus, dictating his divine wisdom to the mortals on Earth.
In California, we have the California Coastal Commission, the ever-powerful independent and quasi-judicial regulatory body that overseas and enforces the Coastal Act, the legislation that ensures the pristine California coastline doesn’t befall the same fate as that of, say, Florida and its literal seawalls of hotels and high-rise buildings.
Hyperbole aside, commissioners share some similarities with the fabled gods of ancient times—though these days, any Joe Schmoe can make his voice heard before the commission with a simple letter.
At the 40th anniversary of its formation, the California Coastal Commission held its January 2013 meeting in our neck of the woods, at the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Pismo Beach. It was a jam-packed three days of staff reports, sewer plants, and nuclear fission.
* * *
The Coastal Commission came about after the passage of a 1972 voter initiative, which later became 1976’s California Coastal Act. The act includes specific policies on such issues as public access and recreation, terrestrial and marine habitat protection, visual resources, development design, and public works, and constitutes the statutory standards applied across the board to proposed development in the coastal zone as mapped by the Legislature.
The commission has 12 voting members, six of which are elected officials from coastal districts; the other six are “public members” from different fields of expertise. All voting members are appointed by either the governor, the Senate Rules Committee, or the Speaker of the Assembly.
Despite the agency’s mission of conserving coastal resources and increasing public access to California’s coastline—goals few people would publicly knock—it has consistently drawn the ire from property rights advocates, developers, and the real estate industry, often resulting in litigation.
There were only a few outbursts of disapproval at the body’s latest meeting on the Central Coast—the first held in San Luis Obispo County since August 2010—but the local projects the members heard represent good examples of the tight balancing act the commissioners have to play in their role as stewards of California’s alluring shoreline.
‘Tough times’ ahead
Before they began discussing seismic testing, wastewater treatment plants, or constructing seawalls, the commission brainstormed about the direction the agency was heading in 2013, as well as how to address obstacles to enforcing the Coastal Act.
In discussing the executive director’s status report for 2013, commission vice-chair and Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey warned that there appeared to be “tough times” ahead, and that the commission had to outline priorities if it was to get anything done.
Kinsey said the commission’s job entails not just stewardship of the coastline, but also working to best preserve the social and cultural fabric of coastal living, while also working to promote and support California’s roughly $40-billion-a-year coastal economy.
Accomplishing that is easier said than done, he said, as too often the commission is seen by local governments as overbearing, and by some coastal residents as infringing upon property rights.
Another big goal the commission set is to better address climate change and sea level rise through long-term coastal planning, permitting, and public education. This, of course, will require better communication with local governments and their staff.
“We’re all in this together. We are going to be pushing this,” said Brian Brennan, Ventura city councilman and commissioner for the South Central Coast region—which includes San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “While it is in our purview, these other agencies might have something to say.”
Esther Sanchez, city councilwoman for the city of Oceanside in northern San Diego County and commissioner for the socially conservative San Diego region, lamented that one of the biggest challenges is attempting to work with her colleagues in city governments who don’t believe in climate change.
“In my experience, many think it’s something made up to interfere with business. When is it polite to start talking about this in a very serious way?” Sanchez asked. “We can’t be the lone voice in the wilderness saying, ‘This is the time.’”
To that end, the conversation soon turned to enforcement and how best to hold local governments accountable to the parameters of the Coastal Act.
“In many places on the coast, violating the Coastal Act is just the cost of doing business. For me that is a crying shame,” said Commission Chair Mary K. Shallenberger.
She noted that—as with many other state agencies—the commission has hit a rough patch of budget cuts and dwindling resources in past years. She noted that the commission can currently only afford to staff one enforcement officer for the entire coastline north of San Francisco.
This talk about hard times and growing sharper enforcement teeth resonated with many locals in the audience, a number of whom literally begged the commission to stand tough in the face of developers and local governments who try to push through environmentally sensitive or otherwise poorly planned projects.
Resident Richard Sidowski lamented project applicants who attempt to circumvent the application process when it comes to the Coastal Commission, saying some people appear to feel it’s easier to ask forgiveness of state regulators after the fact than for permission beforehand. In those cases, Sidowski asked the commissioners to use their power to prosecute people who violate the rules “to the fullest extent of the law.”
Day trip to Diablo
It got a little awkward at the end of the commission’s first day in SLO County when commissioners joined members of the public in hopping a bus for a Pacific Gas & Electric-chaperoned field trip to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The trip took off just more than an hour after the commission adopted its revised findings in opposition to PG&E’s proposed 3-D high-energy studies in state and federal waters from Cayucos to Point Sal, effectively ending the utility’s bid for the surveys in the near future.
The seismic studies are a component of federal regulations that have to be satisfied prior to relicensing the plant’s two reactors. Current licenses are set to expire in 2024 and 2025.
At its Nov. 14 meeting in Santa Monica, the commission overwhelmingly voted to deny PG&E’s application for a coastal permit to conduct the studies, citing “significant and unavoidable” impacts to marine life and an outcry from the local fishing community.
The commission ruled that PG&E failed to show sufficient evidence to determine whether or not the project was consistent with the Coastal Act, nor that the methodology was the least environmentally intrusive option for mapping the seismic landscape of Central Coast waters.
The commission heard from about 15 residents emotionally lauding them for their denial of the unpopular project.
However, Gene Nelson, an engineering lecturer at Cal Poly and a PG&E employee, chastised the commission for what he called the lack of scientists, engineers, and economists involved in the decision.
The last-minute critique didn’t seem to have much effect on the commissioners, who again unanimously accepted its staff’s revised findings on the project—essentially its death knell.
PG&E hasn’t announced what it will do next—whether it will return later this year with a revised application or will investigate alternate methods for gathering seismic data. Ed Halpin, PG&E’s chief nuclear operator, explained that the utility is reviewing data from low-energy studies it gathered over the last two years before moving forward.
About an hour after commissioners reiterated their opposition to the high-energy tests, they were aboard a bus, brown paper bag lunches in hand, on their way to Diablo Canyon for a first-hand look at the plant, an effort by the company to assure the regulators and the public that the plant is safe and to clear up some common misconceptions.
A Sun reporter and photographer were able to secure a last-minute pair of seats and joined about 10 members of the public, as well as a few members of the local media.
We were also joined by PG&E Senior Government Relations Representative (and up until November 2011, mayor of Grover Beach) John Shoals, Meteorologist John Lindsey, and Spokesman Tom Cuddy.
As we pulled up, our handlers warned that it was a busy day at the plant. Not only were they preparing for a planned refueling outage on one of the reactors, but the plant’s security forces were conducting training exercises that included a cool-sounding anti-terrorism drill.
Once off the bus, we were herded to the plant’s Learning Center, where we broke up into groups. Shoals and Cuddy took the Sun and Tribune reporters, as well as commissioners Brennan, Schallenberger, and Steve Blank.
First stop was the plant’s intake manifold, which sucks up some 2.5 billion gallons of ocean water a day to cool the reactors. PG&E Director of State Agency Relations Mark Krauss explained that the plant has never harmed a marine mammal in its history, and that the man-made cove surrounding the intake was designed to prevent wildlife and kelp intrusion.
PG&E Director of Operations Jim Welsh then led us to where the magic happens—to the generator turbine deck, one of the most restricted locations on the premises. It took more than a half hour to lead the eight or so non-PG&E employees through security, which included a background check, ID badges, and a walk through an airport-like metal detector that blew air up our shirt to detect any harmful substances.
Once in and through the many layers of security, we were led up to the turbine deck and fitted with hard hats, goggles, and ear protectors.
Last stop was the simulation control room. As we were led into an observation room fitted with one-way glass, we watched as plant employees went through complex drills nobody seemed to understand, despite the best efforts by Shoals to explain them.
Suddenly, a deep rumbling erupted from the walls and ceiling around us and the control room lit up. A startled Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, taken by surprise, gave a panicked “What is that?” before realizing it was a drill for the people in the control room. Nobody wanted to admit it, but Mitchell wasn’t the only one caught off guard.
Another walk through security later, and we were heading back home—but not without a stop at the spent fuel storage casks on the far edge of the plant.
It had been an incredibly long day for the commissioners—who had kicked off their meeting at 8:30 a.m. (it was now about 6:30 in the evening). As we passed through the gates, there was chatter from the exhausted commissioners about catching happy hour in time.
The no’s rain down
On Jan. 10, during its second day of deliberations, the commission considered several local projects—a mansion on sacred ground, a house on stilts, and Morro Bay’s controversial wastewater treatment plant—and denied all of them.
Just south of Avila Beach, Pirate’s Cove is best known as SLO County’s favorite place for frolicking nude in the sand and sea, but fully clothed hikers also frequent the area for its access to Whale’s Cave and Ontario Ridge, a hillside with magnificent ocean views. For the Northern Chumash tribe of Native Americans, the site is sacred.
Though the public has used the land for decades, most of it is privately owned and zoned for residential use. In August 2009, Rob and Judi McCarthy began the process of building their dream home on the site, but fighting for water from the Avila Community Services District stalled the dream for years. In July 2011, after three SLO Planning Commission hearings, the McCarthys got a permit to build a 5,500-square-foot home and detached guesthouse, but the permit was appealed to the commission because of its potential impact on views, water, and beach access.
The steep trail from the public parking area on Cave Landing Road to the top of Ontario Ridge services a cell tower and cuts right through the McCarthys’ lot, but their plans would have ended the public’s access, which is technically trespassing that’s gone unenforced for years. The landowners said they would continue to let people walk along the top of the ridge (a portion of that trail also crosses their property), but hikers would have to access it from the backside or from a faraway trailhead in Shell Beach.
Rob McCarthy chronicled his frustrations with the local planning department and the commission in a blog called sloleaks.com. One post was titled, “Are the Coastal Commission staff overworked, lazy, or just plain evil?” McCarthy repeatedly wrote that bureaucracies like the commission are “crushing the hopes and dreams of the productive class” and posted pictures of Commissioner Steve Kinsey’s seaside mansion, questioning whether or not the commissioner was given special treatment.
During public comment, Northern Chumash Tribal Administrator Fred Collins said the area was once a large complex of tribal villages and burial sites. To this day, Chumash descendants perform ceremonies there, harnessing good energy from certain outcroppings of rock visible from the proposed construction site. A giant house would block their views and taint the ceremonies, he said.
“There are so few sacred places left,” Collins later told New Times. “It’s absolutely critically important to protect the ones we have.”
Public comment was split fairly evenly between people who wanted the area to remain as pristine as possible and people who supported the rights of the property owners to develop their investment. Todd Smith, a friend of the applicants’, said that five years of research went into picking the least intrusive place to build on the parcel.
“This is a reasonable request for a home on a property that is zoned residential,” Smith said.
Kinsey, though critical of McCarthy’s combative blog, eventually moved for approval of the project, with staff-recommended reductions. Other commissioners weren’t as quick to forgive the applicant’s apparent disdain for due process.
“Fundamentally, where you got lost in this is thinking your point of view is the only one that matters,” Commissioner Mitchell said. “You’re one or two people who want to build a house, but we represent the rest of the people in California.”
The project was denied with a 7-3 vote.
The commissioners similarly rebuked Vaughn and Mary Koligian after discussing their application to build a two-story, single-family home where Pismo Creek meets Pismo Beach. The area is prone to flooding, and the house would have to sit on stilts to be safe. Also, the area’s Local Coastal Plan requires developments in that location to be “visitor-serving,” not residential.
The last local item on the Commission’s agenda was a long-awaited decision on the fate of the wastewater treatment plant that currently operates just inland of the Morro Strand State Beach, serving the communities of Morro Bay and Cayucos, but the commission found itself in the middle of an odd situation.
Facing fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board of the Central Coast for releasing under-treated waste water into the ocean on four occasions in the last seven years and concerns that a 100-year flood or tsunami could unleash torrents of sewage, the city of Morro Bay and the Cayucos Sanitary District (CSD) joined forces and have worked for several years to design a safer, more effective plant. The disputed permit sought to build a new facility in essentially the same site, but sitting 7 1/2 feet higher on 35,000 cubic yards of fill. As the commission prepared to review the project and it became fairly clear they’d deny the permit, new members were elected to the Morro Bay City Council, tilting the majority opinion toward relocating the plant far away from the coast. Moving the plant would add an estimated $12 million to $20 million to the project’s price tag and postpone completion by about two years, according to Mayor Jamie Irons, who pushed for the change of plans. On Jan. 3, the council approved a resolution recommending that the California Coastal Commission deny their own permit application.
Four days later, the CSD board wrote a letter requesting that the Morro Bay council instead withdraw the application.
It’s a small but important difference.
If the commission considered the permit and denied it, that would mean they’ve issued a definitive “no” on the project and that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent designing and lobbying for a doomed project were wasted. But if the application were withdrawn, the two agencies would have more time to make adjustments and possibly come to a consensus on a version of the original plan that could appease the mighty coastal authority.
So with zero applicants urging the commission to approve the permit as written, commissioners entertained two hours of discussion, including 40 speakers opining during public comment.
Morro Bay council members Nancy Johnson and George Leage, now representing the minority opinion, spoke in favor of withdrawal, warning that abandoning the plan would create a rift with their partners in Cayucos. Susan McCabe, the plan’s former lobbyist (her services were suspended on Jan. 3) cautioned that Cayucos might file a lawsuit if the permit were denied outright.
In the end, commissioners voted unanimously to deny the permit. Brennan showered Morro Bay with praise for making the hard choice of spending more money to do what’s ultimately the right move for the area’s environment and the community’s future.
“You’re going to be a model in this,” he said.
Chair Shallenberger wasn’t as kind. She chastised city officials for their sudden change of heart, venting that city staff had spent weeks pushing the commission to hurry up with a decision in favor of the project.
“You’re saying, ‘Please, save us from ourselves. Deny our own project and take the blame for denying something we asked you to approve,’” she said. “I am annoyed that you made us go through this exercise.”
Morro Bay and Cayucos officials are scheduled to meet on Feb. 14 to discuss the next step for their Joint Powers Agreement. Will their love be rekindled? They certainly have a lot to talk about, including hard financial figures for relocating the wastewater plant and how to keep the current facility operating at peak performance in the mean time.
Surfing waves of wine
When deliberations finally ended Thursday evening, some people were jubilant and others sullen, but there was one thing everyone could agree on: It was time to get out of that Vet’s Hall and head to Ventana Grill, where a catered reception and no-host bar were waiting. With tall windows that watched waves crash into the bluffs below, the banquet room was jam packed with all the big names in coastal politics.
Local environmental activists and developers rubbed shoulders with Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (a former Coastal Commissioner), SLO County Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Paul Teixeira, and handfuls of city council members from Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Morro Bay as everyone honored the esteemed guardians of the coast.
Sponsored by Compass Health, the Morro Bay and Pismo Beach Chambers of Commerce, the Pismo Beach Hospitality Association, RRM Design Group, the SLO County Conference and Visitor’s Bureau, and the SLO Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the shindig featured delectable finger foods and desserts, and spirits were high.
Brennan said such affairs are pretty standard for commission meetings, which occur once a month and generally last a few days. It gives people who hold views in fierce opposition a chance to come together in a more relaxed setting, he said.
“Being an Irish person, I understand that most of the important stuff happens in the pub,” Brennan said.
He’s been on the job for just less than two years, and he says it’s not something he approaches lightly. Anything the commission approves will impact the public’s access to the coast for a long time, and as a surfer, he wants access to be as open as possible. He said he’d be more apt to approve projects that include affordable access elements, such as seaside hostels. Oftentimes, however, he finds himself denying projects that never should have made it past the local level.
“A lot of local officials pass the buck to us because they can,” Brennan said. “They get to look business friendly, and we get to be the bad guys.”
Matt Fountain and Nick Powell are staff writers for New Times, the Sun’s sister paper to the north. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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