Legislative Analyst's Office

Analysis of the 2000-01 Budget Bill
California Coastal Commission (3720)

The California Coastal Commission was created by the Coastal Act of 1976. In general, the act seeks to protect the state's natural and scenic resources along California's coast. It also delineated a "coastal zone" running the length of the California coast, extending seaward to the state's territorial limit of three miles, and extending inland a varying width from 1000 yards to a few miles. The commission's primary responsibility is to implement the act's provisions. It is also the state's planning and management agency for the coastal zone. The commission's jurisdiction does not include the San Francisco Bay Area, where development is regulated by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

The Coastal Commission has its headquarters in San Francisco and six regional offices throughout the coastal zone. The commission proposes expenditures totaling $16.1 million in 2000-01. This represents an increase of $2.7 million, or 20 percent, over estimated current-year expenditures. The increase will provide an additional 11.3 personnel-years (PYs), primarily for enforcement duties.

Coastal Commission Focuses Resources On Coastal Development Permits

State law requires that the commission perform a number of functions to carry out the objectives of the Coastal Act. Although the workload generated by the different tasks may change over time, the largest share of the commission's staff resources are devoted to the processing of coastal development permits.

State law assigns to the commission a number of tasks which can be grouped into seven categories. Figure 1 (see next page) highlights the commission's duties and the number of staff positions allocated to each function. Several of these duties are discussed in greater detail below.
Figure 1
California Coastal Commission

Major Duties

Land use planning (approximately 57 positions devoted to this and development permitting, below)
  • Review and certify local coastal programs (LCPs)
  • Review and certify LCP amendments
  • Conduct periodic reviews of adopted LCPs
Development permitting (approximately 57 positions devoted to this and land use planning, above)
  • Issue coastal development permits in regions lacking certified LCPs
  • Consider appeals of local government decisions on coastal permit applications
Enforcement (5 positions)
  • Monitor coastal zone for violations of Coastal Act
  • Take action against unpermitted activities and violations of coastal development permits
Securing public access (2 positions)
  • Prepare and promote a coastal public access program
  • Ensure that coastal development incorporates adequate public coastal access
Education (4 positions)
  • Implement a public education program
  • Coordinate volunteer efforts that foster public responsibility for ocean resources
Energy management (6 positions)
  • Review and approve permits and monitor oil and gas projects in the coastal zone
  • Participate in oil spill prevention and response programs
Statewide planning, federal programs, water quality, legislative programs (16 positions)
  • Administer federal Coastal Zone Management Act and other federal laws relating to planning and zoning in coastal zone
  • Certify specific local, state, and federal activities for conformance with Coastal Act
  • Review permits for wastewater treatment works; work to promote quality of coastal waters

In addition to the positions identified in Figure 1, the commission has 12 statewide senior management positions, 10 lawyers and legal support staff, and 31 positions assigned to technical and administrative services. Overall, the commission has 143 authorized positions for 1999-00.

Land Use Planning. Land use planning in the coastal zone, as in the rest of the state, is the primary responsibility of local governments. However, the Coastal Act imposes a number of requirements on land use in the coastal zone. Most significantly, the act requires local governments to adopt Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) to govern development of land in their jurisdictions that lie within the coastal zone.

In preparing to develop LCPs, many local governments have chosen to divide their coastal zone territory into several segments. This is done when a local government's coastal jurisdiction encompasses several distinct regions with different land use issues. A separate LCP is developed for each coastal segment. There are currently 125 coastal segments within the 73 coastal cities and counties.

An LCP must contain (1) a land use plan and (2) zoning ordinances to implement the land use plan. In general, LCPs must be designed to ensure maximum public access to the coast, provide recreational facilities, protect the marine environment, and otherwise promote the goals and objectives of the Coastal Act.

The Coastal Commission reviews and certifies LCPs for conformity with the act. As originally passed, the act required all local governments in the coastal zone to have submitted LCPs to the commission by
January 1, 1980. However, this deadline has been extended several times, and today some jurisdictions still have not submitted LCPs to the commission.

Local governments may amend their certified LCPs at any time. The commission is required to review these amendments within specified timeframes. In addition, statute requires the commission to review certified LCPs at least once every five years to assess whether the LCPs are being implemented in conformity with the Coastal Act and, if necessary, to make suggestions for corrective action.

Development Permitting. In general, the Coastal Act provides for the regulation of development in the coastal zone through the issuance of coastal development permits. As opposed to regular building permits, which enforce local code requirements and other building standards, coastal development permits are intended to ensure that construction in the coastal zone is consistent with the Coastal Act. For example, coastal development permits address such issues as public access to the coast, protection of watersheds, and maintaining coastal views. Coastal development permits are required in addition to any local building permits or other local requirements.

In jurisdictions without a certified LCP, coastal development permits are issued by the Coastal Commission. Once an LCP is certified, authority to approve most coastal permits is transferred to the local government. However, a local government's decisions can be appealed to the commission.

Each year the commission processes about 1,000 to 1,400 coastal development permit applications. These applications make up the bulk of the commission's workload and utilize a significant portion of the commission's resources. Collectively, local governments in the coastal zone process a similar number, and about 40 to 70 of these are appealed to the commission.

Enforcement. The commission is responsible for the enforcement of the Coastal Act. Examples of violations of the act include encroachments onto public land, illegal signage, and unpermitted seawalls. In cases where a coastal development permit is lacking, the commission usually will inform the property owner of the need for a permit. This approach frequently can bring about cooperation, particularly in cases where the violation was unintentional. Where a property owner is unwilling to correct the violation, the commission may resort to more formal mechanisms such as issuing a cease and desist order. The commission uses these formal approaches only infrequently. If the commission finds that a violation is causing continuing resource damage, it can order the restoration of the site. Such orders are rare, however.

The commission is not authorized to impose fines or penalties for violations. However, it can initiate litigation against a violator, and the court can impose civil penalties up to $30,000. A court can impose additional daily fines for as long as the violation persists, if it determines that the violator is acting intentionally and knowingly. Due to the commission's limited resources and its desire to minimize conflict, such litigation and fines are rare.

Securing Public Access. The commission ensures public access to the coast through its involvement with LCPs and development permits. It works to increase public access more directly by obtaining and developing "offers to dedicate" (OTDs). Offers to Dedicate are recorded legal commitments, made by property owners, to allow a public easement or right-of-way along or through their property. The commission may require an OTD as a condition for approving a coastal development permit.

Merely securing an OTD is not enough to provide public access, however, since the "offer" needs to be "accepted" by an appropriate entity (usually a local government or a nonprofit organization) willing to improve (if necessary) and maintain the easement. Sometimes improvements such as stairways or parking spaces need to be provided before an easement can be used by the public.

The commission does not accept OTDs itself. However, it identifies local governments or nonprofit organizations that are willing to do so. To facilitate the acceptance of OTDs by such groups, the commission conducts mapping efforts, researches titles, pursues the abatement of any identified encroachments, and otherwise works to prepare the OTDs for acceptance. The State Coastal Conservancy (SCC) works with the commission in identifying entities willing to accept OTDs.

Education. The commission carries out public education programs that promote the conservation and appropriate use of coastal resources. The two main public education efforts include the Adopt-A-Beach program and the annual Coastal Cleanup Day. These programs seek to involve school-age children and the general population in coastal stewardship activities and to raise awareness of coastal resources. The commission also has developed a "Save Our Seas" curriculum for schools and sponsors school assembly programs.

Education programs are funded largely out of proceeds from the sale of special Coastal Protection license plates. Such funding provides $390,000 in the current year. Additional sources of funding include the General Fund and corporate sponsorships. The commission's education programs rely heavily on volunteers, as well as nonprofit and local governmental organizations which receive grants from the commission.

Some Local Governments Not Fulfilling LCP Responsibilities

Twenty-five out of 73 local governments lack certified Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) for at least a portion of the coastal zone under their jurisdiction. We recommend the Legislature ensure, for a reasonable period of time, the continued availability of state assistance, including grants, to help those local governments develop their LCPs. We further recommend that, after a reasonable period of time, the Legislature reactivate the state mandate that local governments develop certifiable LCPs.

Earlier LCP Deadlines Missed. Although the Coastal Act originally required that all local governments in the coastal zone have certified LCPs in place by 1981, 25 of the 73 local governments still lack certified LCPs for at least one of their coastal segments. In total, 37 of the 125 coastal segments lack certified LCPs. Those 37 segments make up about 13 percent of the geographic area of the coastal zone.

Mandate Suspended as Cost-Saving Measure. In 1993-94, during a time of state fiscal constraints, the state suspended the LCP requirement in order to avoid paying reimbursements to local governments. While that mandate remains suspended in the current year, since 1997-98 the commission has provided grants to local governments to help them develop their LCPs. The 2000-01 budget proposes to continue the grant program. This grant program, which makes available statewide $500,000 each year, can also be used by local governments to update an existing LCP. Over the past three years the commission has awarded 25 grants, of which 12 are for new LCP development. While no new LCPs have yet been completed, the commission expects up to 16 new LCPs to be submitted within the next two years. However, the commission considers it likely that some of the submittals will not be certifiable.

Although some local governments are actively working to develop LCPs, several appear unwilling to do so. The commission estimates LCPs are unlikely to be developed for 20 coastal segments (lying within 15 local jurisdictions) unless there are "significant changes in state statute or commission activities."

A study commissioned by the Coastal Commission in the 1980s identified a variety of reasons for the lack of compliance with the LCP requirement, including financial limitations and political resistance. The suspension of the LCP mandate may exacerbate the financially-driven constraints on LCP adoption.

LCPs Crucial to Coastal Act. Adoption and certification of LCPs is a central requirement of the Coastal Act and important for two main reasons. First, the LCP certification process helps to ensure that coastal communities develop sound, cohesive land use policies which are consistent with the Coastal Act. Second, local governments with certified LCPs are able to issue coastal development permits, thus relieving the commission of this task. The commission currently devotes the largest share of its staff resources to processing such permits, and these resources could be redirected to other important coastal protection activities such as statutorily required periodic reviews of LCPs. In addition, the issuance of coastal development permits by local governments is typically more convenient for property owners, as they do not have to contact two levels of government for permits. As a consequence, the likelihood that property owners will apply for coastal permits may increase, thereby increasing compliance with the Coastal Act.

Mandate Should Be Reactivated. Accordingly, we recommend that the Legislature strengthen the state's ability to ensure that all coastal segments are covered by certified LCPs. Specifically, we recommend that the Legislature establish a new deadline for new applications for LCP development grants. One or two years would be an appropriate length of time for the deadline. During this period, local governments lacking certified LCPs should be encouraged to make use of the commission's grant program. At the end of the period, we believe the LCP mandate should be reactivated and no new grants be made. Instead, local governments would have to submit claims to the state for the reimbursable costs of LCP development. Funds for the current grant program could then be used to pay mandate reimbursement claims. (We note that such claims averaged $20,000 per local government during the last few years before the mandate was suspended.)

The Legislature may also want to enact legislation that increases incentives for LCP compliance. For example, penalties could be imposed on local governments that do not fulfill the reactivated mandate. Some coastal states, such as Oregon and Florida, have in the past placed moratoria on development permits or withheld certain state revenues from jurisdictions that fail to develop mandated development plans.

We believe the arrangement we propose would increase incentives for local governments to develop LCPs, and would strengthen the Coastal Act. It would allow willing local governments to utilize state funds to defray the cost of LCP development. At the same time, it would make clear the state's commitment to the LCP mandate and create consequences for local governments' failure to fulfill the mandate.

Coastal Commission Not Fulfilling LCP Responsibilities

The Coastal Commission is not conducting statutorily required periodic reviews of certified Local Coastal Programs (LCPs). We recommend that the Legislature adopt supplemental report language directing the commission to prepare a work plan to review LCPs. We also recommend the enactment of legislation to strengthen incentives for local governments to adopt the commission's recommended LCP amendments.

As mentioned above, the commission is required statutorily to review each certified LCP at least once every five years. These reviews can identify provisions in LCPs which have become obsolete due to statutory changes, the cumulative impact of development, or improved understanding of ecosystems. In addition, the reviews provide an important oversight function: by periodically assessing the implementation of LCPs, the commission can monitor local governments' enforcement of the Coastal Act.

Reviews Not a Priority for Commission. Historically, the commission has not conducted these required five-year reviews. In fact, the commission has completed only two reviews since 1977. Currently, reviews are past due for 85 of the 88 certified LCP segments.

The commission argues that it has lacked the resources to carry out all of its statutory responsibilities. Additionally, it asserts that, since its recommendations for LCP amendments are only advisory, its resources are best focused in other areas, such as the processing of coastal development permits.

Work Plan Needed. The recent addition of 13 PYs in the current year and a proposed 11 more PYs in the budget year provides new opportunities for the commission to address more of its statutory obligations, including reviews of certified LCPs.

We believe the commission should work to eliminate its backlog of mandatory reviews. We recommend that the Legislature adopt the following supplemental report language directing the commission to provide a work plan to eliminate its LCP review backlog over time, with a prioritization of coastal segments or regions to be reviewed first. For example, reviews of regions experiencing significant growth could take precedence over reviews of more stable regions. The commission's plan should also identify staffing needs to eliminate the backlog, taking into account staff that could be redirected to LCP review as they are freed from issuing coastal development permits when jurisdictions develop certified LCPs.

On or before January 10, 2001, the Coastal Commission shall provide to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the fiscal committees of both houses a work plan for eliminating its backlog of statutorily mandated Local Coastal Program (LCP) reviews. The work plan shall (1) list all LCPs with their date of certification; (2) group the LCPs into two or more ranks indicating their priority, based on their relative impact on the goals of the Coastal Act, for review by the commission; (3) estimate the staff time and other resources necessary for reviewing each group of LCPs; and (4) provide a timeline for the review of each group of LCPs, based on anticipated resources.

Authority of Reviews Should Be Strengthened. Increasing the number of LCP reviews completed by the commission will have limited effect if local governments do not adopt the recommendations resulting from those reviews. Thus, we recommend the enactment of legislation that increases the incentives for local governments to adopt the commission's recommendations resulting from LCP reviews. For example, failure to adopt certain types of recommended LCP amendments, such as those relating to public access and other critical goals of the Coastal Act, could result in decertification of a local government's LCP. In this way, local authority to approve coastal development permits would depend on its willingness to maintain an up-to-date LCP, which serves as the basis for review of such permits.

Coastal Act Enforcement Is Inadequate

We find that violations of the Coastal Act are common in parts of the coastal zone. We recommend approval of the commission's request for additional enforcement staff. We further recommend adoption of budget bill language restricting the use of the new staff to enforcement activities.

In enacting the Coastal Act, the Legislature declared that "the Coastal Zone is a distinct and valuable natural resource of vital and enduring interest to all the people and exists as a delicately balanced ecosystem." Yet our review, based on site visits and interviews with commission staff, has found that violations of the Coastal Act are common in certain developed regions of the coastal zone. Violations include development projects lacking valid coastal permits and activities inconsistent with LCPs. It is not unusual to encounter several violations, such as unpermitted seawalls or encroachments onto public property, along a few miles of developed beachfront. Such violations often block access to beaches, obstruct scenic views, degrade the marine environment, and otherwise prevent the public's use and enjoyment of the coast.

Currently, the commission has five positions at its headquarters to perform enforcement activities statewide. (One of these positions is the program supervisor, and one is committed to the North Coast district.) With this level of staffing, the commission does not systematically monitor the coastal zone for potential violations of the Coastal Act. Rather, its investigations of potential violations are driven primarily by complaints it receives from the public. This approach tends to identify the most egregious and blatant violations. However, less obvious or physically isolated violations are considerably less likely to be discovered. Further, the complaint-driven approach only works to the extent that the public is educated about the provisions of the act.

In addition, we find that the lack of adequate staffing means that the commission is unable to follow through on the enforcement cases that do come to its attention. This has resulted in a backlog of about 400 enforcement cases currently awaiting commission action. Further, a reputation for slow enforcement reduces incentives to comply with the act. In summary, the problems we have identified with the commission's haphazard enforcement activities undermine the effectiveness of the Coastal Act.

The 2000-01 budget proposes to address these problems by augmenting the commission's enforcement staff by nine positions. This would allow one enforcement officer to be assigned to each of the commission's six districts, with a second enforcement officer assigned to the South Central district (covering Santa Barbara, Ventura, and western Los Angeles Counties), which has the highest number of violations. An additional two enforcement positions would be assigned to the commission's headquarters, as would a staff counsel. These new positions would bring the commission's total enforcement staff to 14.

Our review shows that the commission's request is warranted. Clearly there is a need for greater monitoring of the coastal zone and more reliable enforcement of the Coastal Act's provisions. However, in the past the commission has internally redirected enforcement staff to other priorities as a means to cope with budget and staffing reductions. For example, some enforcement staff time has been used to process coastal development permits. To ensure that enforcement staff are not redirected to other activities in 2000-01, we recommend that the Legislature adopt the following budget bill language:

Of the amount appropriated in this item, $811,000 shall be available only for support of nine new positions for enforcement activities, including monitoring of the coastal zone for violations of the Coastal Act, and to act toward the correction of identified violations. It is the intent of the Legislature that none of this amount shall be used to support activities not directly related to enforcement of the Coastal Act.

Upcoming Expiration of Offers to Dedicate Threatens Public Access

Hundreds of Offers to Dedicate (OTDs) are due to expire during the next decade. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the commission and the Coastal Conservancy specifies respective responsibilities in ensuring that OTDs are accepted prior to expiration. We recommend that the Legislature adopt supplemental report language requing the departments to provide it with an OTD work program, as outlined in the MOU.

Fences, walls, buildings, and other commercial and residential development make many portions of the coast inaccessible to the public. Accepting OTDs and opening access to the public is one way of making the coast more accessible. In accepting an OTD, a local government, nonprofit organization, or other appropriate agency formally commits to accept responsibility for maintaining the accessway.

As noted above, the commission can require OTDs as a mitigation measure for approving coastal development permits. Typically, these OTDs expire after 21 years unless they are accepted by an appropriate entity. As shown in Figure 2, about 900 OTDs will expire over the next decade unless they are accepted.

The current inventory of unaccepted OTDs represents an important resource for coastal access that was secured with great effort by the commission to mitigate the effects of development. If they are allowed to expire, those mitigation measures will be lost, and securing substitute accessways would likely require the state to purchase easements at market rates. The cost of this could be prohibitive.

The Coastal Act requires both the Coastal Commission and the State Coastal Conservancy to work toward the opening and protection of public accessways to the coast. Yet finding suitable entities to accept OTDs and open access to the public can be a difficult and time-consuming task. Operating and maintenance costs, as well as questions about liability, can make the acceptance of OTDs unattractive to local governments and nonprofit organizations. The commission and conservancy offer technical assistance, grants, and other services to help mitigate those factors.

Because of concerns that the two departments' duties with respect to OTDs were not entirely clear, and that this may have been causing duplication of effort and lack of coordination, the 1999 Budget Act requires the two agencies to enter into an MOU to clarify their respective roles in facilitating the acceptance of OTDs.

The MOU was signed in November 1999. It states that the two departments will develop annual work plans (by October) for their management of OTDs. These work plans, which are to include strategies for acceptance of OTDs, an evaluation of the commission's access inventory, and other components, would help the Legislature to monitor how the goals of the Coastal Act are being achieved. We therefore recommend that the Legislature adopt the following supplemental report language requiring that it be provided with the information in the work plan. Since the departments have already committed to producing the work plan through their MOU, the supplemental report to the Legislature should not be difficult to produce.

On or before November 1, 2000, the commission and the State Coastal Conservancy shall provide the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the fiscal committees of both houses with a work plan for the management of Offers to Dedicate (OTDs) as specified in their memorandum of understanding dated November 1999. The work plan shall:

(a) Describe the strategy to be used by the two departments to achieve the acceptance of all OTDs that would otherwise expire within the next 36 months.

(b) Evaluate OTDs and public access easements contained within the commission's Access Inventory to determine their suitability for actual public recreational use.

(c) Describe a public outreach and education campaign which the two departments will aim at public agencies and nonprofit organizations able and willing to accept OTDs and open the easements for public use.

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