February 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the California Coastal Commission (CCC). The governing body’s role as planning commission for the 1,100 miles of California coastline was authorized by California voters in November 1972 with passage of Proposition 20. The initiative was launched after efforts to pass coastal protection legislation had been approved in the Assembly three times, only to fail each time in the state Senate.
Proposition 20, later codified by the state Legislature in 1976 as the Coastal Act, is the country’s strongest land use policy and has been used as a model in other countries including Chile and Australia. It gives the commission the power to approve or deny development projects within the narrow Coastal Zone with the goal of protecting views, wildlife, coastal water quality, and public access to California beaches for the benefit of all of the people of California—not just the billionaire class.
Coastal protection has been controversial since it was conceived amid furious public outcry following the 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout, at a time when, in addition to offshore oil drilling, proposals for four-lane highways, high-rise hotels, and nuclear power plants were being presented to local planning commissions throughout the state. Proposition 20’s vision was to establish consistent statewide policies to prevent overdevelopment of the coast. Its detractors term it an overreach of government on private property rights. Its supporters are often dismayed that it does not do more to prevent development.
The commission was designed to maintain a degree of independence through its appointing process. Four of the 12 commissioners are appointed respectively by the governor, the Senate pro tem, and the speaker of the Assembly. But the agency’s effectiveness has been hampered at times by deliberate underfunding of its operating budget, and its executive director has several times been targeted for removal by appointees representing development agendas.
Finally, in 2014 the commission increased its effectiveness when the Legislature granted it the power to levy administrative penalties. The muscle this provides means the commission no longer has to rely on other state and federal agencies for enforcement of violations. In more recent years, the long-overdue perspective of environmental justice has gained traction and guided coastal policy.
But climate change is bringing major challenges to coastal protection that the authors of Proposition 20 and the Coastal Act could not have foreseen and therefore included in its protective efforts. One such area is armoring the coast to stave off erosion of coastal bluffs where expensive homes have been built. The act allows such armoring but is ambiguous as to its financing and when such efforts should be abandoned.
Still, the Coastal Act and Coastal Commission have had many successes. Shortly before he retired, in an interview with Earth Alert, the late longtime Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas stated, “Most of the things that have been achieved under the Coastal Act are the things you don’t see. It’s the access that hasn’t been lost, the wetlands that haven’t been filled, the views that haven’t been destroyed, the second home subdivisions that haven’t been allowed, and the agricultural lands that haven’t been destroyed.”
If the coast, what Douglas termed “the geographic soul” of California, is to remain the place where the many, rather than the few, can enjoy recreation and restoration, it continues to need the involvement of the public. For as Douglas often said, “The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.”
Janet Bridgers is the co-founder and president of Earth Alert. Send a response for publication via [email protected].