Let's Hear It for the California Coastal Commission, Still Working After All These Years

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday August 17, 2011 - 11:41:00 AM

Anyone who’s in doubt about the role and the value of governmental regulation should have been at last week’s meeting of the California Coastal Commission in Watsonville last week.  

I happened in on it more or less by accident. Visiting in Santa Cruz, I’d been listening to the local “listener supported” radio station, KUSP, and I noticed a huge number of prime time ads from one “Barry Swenson, Builder”. Yes, yes, I know that in public broadcasting they like to call them by some euphemistic name I can’t remember at the moment, but they’re ads, pure and simple, and they cost money. 

These ads utilized the full-dress green-washing vocabulary to tout the company’s support for a beachfront hotel-building project, and boasted that if approved it would provide jobs with union-scale wages. Curious about what kind of deal would merit such big-time promotion, I asked around, and discovered that backers were hoping to tear down the historic and charming (if old and dilapidated) La Bahia building, a Spanish style relic of the twenties that had been a beach area landmark since our extended family settled in Santa Cruz County more than 40 years ago.  

I learned that the current owners were the Canfield corporation, also the owners of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and that La Bahia had been subjected to “demolition by neglect” for many years. I also found out that the reason for the big ad push was that the Coastal Commission was scheduled to take up the request of the owners and the Barry Swenson development company to change the regulations about what could be built in this locale on behalf of the proposed project, a mammoth luxury condominium hotel which would rise to seven stories, blocking the ocean view of people who lived behind it on “Beach Hill” and also the view of the ridgeline from the beach. 

I have a nostalgic affection for the California Coastal Commission, because covering the newly fledged commission was perhaps my first assignment as a novice reporter. Last week, we’d entertained visitors from France, who couldn’t stop exclaiming over the beauty and pristine condition of the California coast, and the commission gets all the credit. 

Here’s what it’s all about, from the Commission’s website: 

“The mission of the Coastal Commission is to: 

"Protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations. 

"The California Coastal Commission was established by voter initiative in 1972 (Proposition 20) and later made permanent by the Legislature through adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976

"The Coastal Commission, in partnership with coastal cities and counties, plans and regulates the use of land and water in the coastal zone. Development activities, which are broadly defined by the Coastal Act to include (among others) construction of buildings, divisions of land, and activities that change the intensity of use of land or public access to coastal waters, generally require a coastal permit from either the Coastal Commission or the local government.” 

On the agenda last week was a change in what’s called the Local Coastal Program (LCP) for the Central Coast. LCPs contain the ground rules for future development and protection of coastal resources in the 75 coastal cities and counties. “The LCPs specify appropriate location, type, and scale of new or changed uses of land and water,” according to the website.  

To a newcomer, the proposed change to the LCP in question, covering only the La Bahia site, looked a lot like what’s usually called spot zoning, which is usually considered a bad idea. So I went to the meeting to find out whether the commission would cave.  

The public hearing was a day-long spectacle, held in Watsonville’s huge, characterless city council building erected with FEMA money in the wake of the 1989 earthquake. It reminded me of nothing so much as a scene from The Music Man, one of those where the adept promoter is trying to sell a bill of phony goods to a crowd of eager small-town boosters.  

The boosters were out in force, wearing computer-printed shocking pink stickers that said things like “I SUPPORT LA BAHIA”. Eavesdropping on conversations and buttonholing sticker-wearers, I gathered that the large majority of them were either employees of the would-be development organizations or people who hoped for future contracts with a new hotel. Among them were members of the octopus-like Coonerty family, whose tentacles include the mayor of the city of Santa Cruz plus his father, who sits on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and his sister, the manager of the family-owned (and excellent) Bookshop Santa Cruz, all three in evidence at the hearing. 

Opponents were much fewer and much lower-key, holding only a few signs which appeared to have been made at the last minute from paper plates. But they had clearly divided the territory—each speaker who opposed the changed regulation spoke intelligently to a different point, so that all important bases were covered. One surprise was that two labor union organizations, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE) and the Santa Cruz County Labor Council, spoke in opposition, despite that fact that promoters were promising “union-scale jobs” and “local hiring”—evidently the unions just didn’t believe promoters were telling the truth. 

Much hay was made about the assertion that what Santa Cruz needs is a Really Really Big Hotel to protect coastal access for—who, exactly? The proposed hotel would definitely have improved access for well-off would-be patrons who might complain that Santa Cruz has an inadequate supply of pricey accommodations, but it wouldn’t do much for the low-end beach lovers who now flock there from inland areas on day trips.  

Backers did offer to contribute $200,000 to state park campsite maintenance to serve the little guys. Whoop-de-do. Commissioners were not impressed. 

And did the commission cave at the end of this long day? Reader, they didn’t cave. 

In fact, as each commissioner gave the final speech explaining his or her vote, I was profoundly impressed by their intelligence and their grasp of the facts, by the clear indication that they’d actually read and internalized the data provided. This is a revelation to a long-time observer of the Berkeley City Council, where deliberators often don’t even seem to know what the agenda item is, let alone to have read their packets.  

Best Performance by a California Coastal Commissioner: Mark Stone, now a Santa Cruz County supervisor from the inland Scotts Valley district. He’s a lawyer and sometime law professor, and it showed. He clearly dissected exactly what’s wrong in principle with changing regulations for special cases, as well as why the proposed mega-hotel would be bad for the area. Going against the booster parade took a lot of nerve—in fact, it was a classic Profile in Courage, and the sharp knives are already out for him in the pathetic Santa Cruz newspaper. He’s just announced that he’s running for the state assembly—it’s hard to know if this vote will help or hurt him. 

Runner-Up for Best Performance: one Steve Blank, whose bio on the commission website pegs him as a serial entrepreneur and a professor at the UC Berkeley Haas business school. His star achievement was quizzing Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty on why the hotel needed to have so many rooms, and finally worming out of the young mayor a fact that hadn’t been obvious in the day’s testimony: What the boosters really want to build is a convention center, not just a new hotel, and convention hotels have a minimum room requirement. 

If you don’t follow civic boosterism, you might not be aware that convention centers rival sports arenas as classic boondoggles, where the builders walk away with wheelbarrows full of cash and the localities, as often as not, end up with unused white elephants. There’s just no reason to amend the LCP to make a dubiously viable convention center possible, and the majority of commissioners figured this out. 

One bit of bad news: four commissioners voted the wrong way. All were connected, one way or another, with the building industry, and all four demonstrated a sub-par understanding of the matter before them and lack of respect for the importance of protecting the fragile coastal environment.  

Commissioners are appointed in a variety of ways: some through the state legislature, others by the governor. What to worry about for the future, if you care about the California coast: Three of the four bad voters were appointed recently by new-old Governor Jerry Brown. Better keep an eye on him—but then, that’s nothing new, is it?