Guardians of the Coast: How the California Coastal Commission Was Born and Carries Out Its Mission

How a nuclear plant, a real estate development and an oil spill led to a landmark law.

PUBLISHED OCT 17, 2023 12:22 P.M.
Share this:  
Since 1972, the California Coastal Commission has ruled over the state’s shoreline.

Since 1972, the California Coastal Commission has ruled over the state‚Äôs shoreline.   Gordon F. Smith / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 3.0 Unported License

California’s 840 miles of coastline may be the most beautiful in the country, and with 362 miles of beach fully open to the public the state ranks among the best at sharing its coastal scenery with its people. One of the main reasons for that bounty is the California Coastal Commission, a 51-year-old state agency whose mission is to regulate development in the Coastal Zone, and who, according to the Los Angeles Times, plays “a key role in improving public access to beaches and has pushed back on numerous planned developments.”

With a massive amount of territory under its control, the Coastal Commission is one of the most powerful governmental bodies in the state. Where did it come from and how did it become such a dominant force?

There is a reason California’s coast doesn’t resemble the Jersey Shore, or South Florida with its towering beachside hotels and luxury condos. That reason is the Coastal Commission. Except for San Francisco Bay, which has its own regulatory body, the Coastal Zone under the commission’s jurisdiction stretches from Mexico in the south to Oregon in the north. 

The zone reaches three miles into the ocean—the outer limit of state waters—and generally about 1,000 yards inland from the high tide line, though in some areas it stretches farther back depending on the landscape.

Nukes and the California Coast

With this massive amount of territory under its control, the Coastal Commission is one of the most powerful governmental bodies in the state. Where did it come from and how did it become such a dominant force? The first spark of what became the Coastal Commission can be detected as far back as 1953, to a speech delivered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Santa Barbara oil spill not only gave a huge push to the environmental movement nationwide, it left no doubt that taking specific, strong measures to protect California’s coast was a now-or-never proposition. 

Eisenhower’s most famous speech was his parting address warning of the threat posed by what he called the military-industrial complex, but arguably his second-most important address has come to be known as “Atoms for Peace.” Just as the United States and Soviet Union were escalating their frightening nuclear arms race, Eisenhower outlined a future in which the awesome power of the atom would be used for good and peaceful purposes. Such as the generation of electricity.

In 1958, California’s largest power company, PG&E, took up Eisenhower's idea, proposing to construct a nuclear power plant on one of the most pristine swaths of coastline in the state, Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. PG&E succeeded in digging a 70-foot-deep hole that was supposed to be the site of the main nuclear reactor, but a coalition of political activists, environmental conservationists rose up to fight the plan. The prospect of a nuclear reactor dangerously near the San Andreas Fault helped fuel the coastal activists’ cause. In 1962, PG&E gave in and canceled the plan,  and opposition to the Bodega Bay nuke and its ultimate cancellation ignited what became a full-fledged statewide effort to protect the coast.

Prop 20: It Took a Ballot Initiative

The demise of the Bodega Bay nuclear power plant project was not the end of the incursions into California’s coast. From proposals for more nuclear plants to the filling of coastal wetlands to construction of upscale homes along the beaches in Malibu that blocked seaside views and cut off public beach access, the decade of the ’60s was a time of near constant threat to the California coast. 

The 1976 law gave the Commission near total power over any development in the Zone, whether the developer is a private business, individual person, or a government agency—including the federal government.

Only about 100 miles of the coastline were open to the public at that time—while California’s population was swelling, with 27 percent growth over the decade, putting yet more pressure on the coast and all of state’s environmental resources. The number of people living in the state has more than doubled since 1970, to more than 39 million, with nearly seven of every 10 Californians residing in a coastal county, though those counties cover just 22 percent of the state’s land. 

There was a growing consensus that the coast needed to be protected. The tipping point came on January 28, 1969, when the Union Oil Company's Well Number 21, 5.5 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, exploded. The blowout spewed about 4 million gallons of oil over a 35-mile stretch of coastline before the well was finally capped on Feb. 7. The disaster was the worst oil spill in American history, and remained so for 20 years (until the Exxon Valdez calamity in 1989).

The Santa Barbara spill not only gave a huge push to the environmental movement nationwide, leading directly to the creation of the annual Earth Day a year later, it also left no doubt that taking specific, strong measures to protect California’s coast was a now-or-never proposition. 

Assemblymember John Dunlap first tried to pass a coastal protection bill in 1968, after learning of a 5,200-home development called Sea Ranch, planned for 10.6 miles of the Sonoma County coastline. Dunlap tried again the following year, but still met resistance. The defeats only steeled the resolve of not only Dunlap, but also a veterinarian from Cotati named Bill Kortum. It was Kortum who had first alerted Dunlap to the Sea Ranch project. In fact, Kortum—who remained an environmental activist until his death at age 87 in 2014—had previously been instrumental in the movement to block the Bodega Bay nuclear plant.

In response to the Sea Ranch proposal and other big-money real estate developments along the coast, Kortum and a group of fellow activists formed Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands (COAAST). When Dunlap asked Kortum to extend his activist group statewide, Kortum signed up a dozen environmental groups to form the Coastal Alliance, a group designed specifically to support the coastal protection legislation authored by Dunlap and Los Angeles Assemblymember Alan Sieroty. 

The legislature still wouldn’t pass the bill. So in 1972, the Coastal Alliance was able to place an initiative on the November ballot—Proposition 20, the State Coastal Zone Conservation Commission Creation Initiative.

Voters rebuked the recalcitrant legislature and passed the initiative with a 55 to 45 percent vote, creating the state agency now known as the Coastal Commission. The new law allocated $5 million to the Commission (about $37 million in 2023 dollars), or $1.25 million per year for the four years until the law, and the Commission, were set to expire.

The Coastal Act of 1976

In addition to creating the initial iteration of the Coastal Commission, Prop 20 required the new body to create a long-term plan for managing the coast for the entire length of the state. After four intensive years of research, the plan was largely incorporated into legislation that made the Coastal Commission a permanent state agency. This time the legislature passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, the California Coastal Act

The 1976 law prioritized public access to the beaches and other coastal areas as well as preservation of the coast’s complex ecosystem. It defined the boundaries of the Coastal Zone, over which the Commission had jurisdiction. And perhaps most importantly, it gave the Commission near total power over any development in the Zone, whether the developer is a private business, individual person, or a government agency—including the federal government.

Any of those entities proposing to build in the Coastal Zone must obtain a permit. The Coastal Commission reviews local plans for coastal areas, can rule on appeals of local decisions and enforces the standards spelled out in the Coastal Act. That means that certain types of developments are looked on more favorably than others. Specifically, publicly accessible recreational facilities are given preference over commercial or other private developments.

New developments of any kind cannot reduce or block the public’s access to beaches and coastal environments. Developments must also protect environmentally sensitive habitats in order to receive Coastal Commission approval. The view counts as a resource that the Coastal Commission is mandated to protect as well.

What Does the Commission Look Like?

The Coastal Commission consists of 12 members, along with three alternate members. Six of the primary 12 seats are designated for members of the general public. The other six are held by local elected officials, each representing one of six coastal districts: North Coast, North Central Coast, San Diego Coast, Central Coast, South Central Coast and South Coast. The governor appoints four of the members—two elected officials and two public members. Those commissioners serve two-year terms and can be removed by the governor before their terms are up. 

Republican Gov. George Deukmejian went out his way to cast the commission into what longtime executive director Peter Douglas—a principal author of both Prop 20 and the Coastal Act—called its “dark period.”

The Senate Rules Committee and the Speaker of the Assembly appoint four commissioners each—again, two public and two elected officials. Those appointments come with four-year terms, but unlike the governor’s commissioners, cannot be removed. The state Natural Resources Agency Secretary, Transportation Secretary and Lands Commission Chair also sit on the Coastal Commission, but none has a vote. 

The commission meets on a monthly basis at varying locations throughout the state’s coastal areas. Each monthly meeting goes on for three days. Meetings are public and members of the public can ask questions or make comments. Information researched and presented by commission staffers, with questions from the commissioners, make up the core of each meeting. 

And of course, after they have time to pore over the information they’ve received, commissioners vote on the proposals and issues on their agenda.

Gov. Deukmejian Tries to Kill the Commission

Since its inception, the Coastal Commission has never been a favorite of developers and conservative politicians. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who held office from 1983 to 1991, went out his way to cast the commission into what longtime executive director Peter Douglas—a principal author of both Prop 20 and the Coastal Act—called its “dark period.”

By the time Deukmajian took office, the commission had a staff of 212 and an annual budget of $14 million. The new Republican governor, who came into office following Gov. Jerry Brown’s first two terms, quickly attacked the Commission, which he claimed was an obstacle to local decision-making. His attempts to starve the Commission to death nearly succeeded.

By 1989, the Coastal Commission’s budget and staff had been slashed by nearly half—at the same time the federal government was also drastically shrinking its financial support. A state Senate investigation tasked with slashing wasteful spending took a deep dive into the Commission’s finances, and far from finding bloat, instead discovered that the agency no longer had enough money to do its lawfully appointed job.

By 2010, the Times reported, the Commission was taking an average of 400 days to rule on development proposals, and didn’t have enough money to afford printer paper for its office computers.

In 2017, Mary Shallenberger, the Commission’s longest-serving member, told the Los Angeles Times that those cuts crippled the agency. “Most of our problems go back to the really devastating budget cuts by Deukmejian,” she said. “We have never recovered from that.”

What Has the Commission Accomplished?

Despite the draconian budget cuts and staffing shortfalls, the Commission has generally been able to uphold the mission laid out for it in the 1976 law and 1972 ballot initiative that created it. Here are just a few examples.

The Coastal Commission in 1991 proved that when it says that its job is to maintain public access to the beaches as well as ocean views, it means business. After Japanese tycoon Minoru Isutani paid $841 million to buy the iconic Pebble Beach golf resort in Monterey County, he wanted to turn the links into a private club with memberships going for $150,000 each (about $339,000 in 2013 cash).

The Commission by a 10-1 vote blocked the plan. The reason? Turning the course into a private club would restrict the public’s access to the shoreline that Pebble Beach overlooks. Isutanu ended up losing $340 million on the deal, and eventually pulled out of Pebble Beach. 

Then in 1998 the Hearst Corporation made a deal with San Luis Obispo County supervisors to add a golf course to its Hearst Ranch property—home of another California icon, Hearst Castle. When the proposal came to the Commission, all 12 commissioners voted to nix it. About 1,000 members of the public showed up at the Commission’s meeting to protest the planned golf course. A staff report slammed the Hearst proposal as “not consistent with the development, agriculture, recreation, visual resource, environmentally sensitive habitat, public access, hazards, and archeological policies found in chapter three of the Coastal Act.”

And in 2011 the Commission came full circle—42 years after the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill that played such a crucial role in bringing the Commission into being. The Commission approved plans for an oil pipeline that would stop the practice of tankers carrying oil off the shore, reducing the risk of further spills.

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact
Explainer

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

This article is tagged with:
Related Articles
Since the Gold Rush era, land reclamation has cost California 90 percent of its wetlands.
How Land Reclamation Hurts California’s Environment
The hidden price tag of ‚Äúreclaiming‚ÄĚ swamps and marshes as usable land.
Zoning laws tell you what you can and can't build on the property you own. How does government get away with that?
How Zoning Laws Shape California and Society
Zoning is everywhere, but is it a way to regulate development or a tool for social engineering?
California has three cities of more than 1 million people, and 187 of over 50,000.
Cities in California: What Does it Take to Be One?
What makes a place in California a ‚Äúcity‚ÄĚ and what are the benefits of being one?
Join Us Today!