Newly Formed Coastal Commission Facing Priority Test

Private: Decision on Mailbu Coastal Plan, including public access, is due this week.

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

A battle is taking shape at the California Coastal Commission, the influential 12-member state body charged with protecting California's coastline.

At issue is whether the commission will tilt more towards developers and other interests seeking permission for projects along the coast. Environmental groups fear a pair of recent appointees will do just that, while developers and other coastal property owners hope the commission will give more weight to the rights of property owners.

In Los Angeles, two developments this week should provide clues of where the Coastal Commission will strike the balance.

One is the renewal of the coastal plan for Malibu, including a decision on whether to allow private property owners to continue to seal off public access to beaches. The other is the proposed widening of Lincoln Boulevard to accommodate growth generated by the Playa Vista project.

"These are key decisions that should give us a very good indication on where the commissioners are going," said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network, an environmental group opposed to the Playa Vista project.

Earlier this year, the Commission gave its approval to an extension of the Marina (90) Freeway beyond its western terminus near Culver Boulevard.

The Malibu coastal plan, which comes before the commission on Wednesday, is broader in scope. While the coastal access issue has grabbed the headlines, development is the biggest area of controversy. Several Malibu property owners, including Univision Communications Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Jerrold Perenchio, have proposed development projects along the coast. The coastal plan before the commission lays down general guidelines for how much development is allowable within Malibu city limits.

Changing panel

What makes the outcome of this week's votes so unpredictable is the changing makeup of the commission itself. At the center of the recent makeover is Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, D-Baldwin Hills/Ladera Heights. As Speaker, he gets to appoint four members to the commission. Senate President John Burton and Gov. Gray Davis also appoint four members each to the commission. There are no terms for commissioners; each serves at the pleasure of the person appointing them.

Environmental activists like Hanscom have said Wesson is using his appointment power to turn the commission more in favor of developers. She said Wesson has reappointed two commissioners San Diego developer Patrick Kreuer and Monterey County Supervisor David Potter who have tended to side with developers.

Wesson also appointed William Burke, chairman of the Los Angeles Marathon and former South Coast Air Quality Management board chairman.

Then, last month, environmental activists claim Wesson dumped the only strong advocate of their cause. Patricia McCoy, a councilwoman from Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego. She has been replaced by San Diego City Councilman Scott Peters, an environmental attorney who has spent most of his time advising businesses and governments.

"Wesson is going down a street that Gray Davis has gone down in a big way, appointing people we don't consider as friendly to coastal protection," Hanscom said.

Complaints disputed

Although Wesson's office would not comment on why he didn't reappoint McCoy, spokeswoman Patricia Soto disputed Hanscom's characterization. "The Speaker has an approach of appointing people who are fair, balanced and sensitive to the environment and will continue to do so," she said.

Peters, the most recent appointee, said he would try to develop compromise solutions wherever possible. Otherwise, he said he would come down on the side of coastal protection.

"My goal will be to use my background in environmental law to see where the field of disagreement can be narrowed," Peters said. "Sometimes that gap can't be bridged, and that's where you have to make a choice. In making that choice, the first call is to protect the coast. So much else in California depends on that coastline."

Peters wouldn't comment on where he stands on the two main L.A. issues before the Coastal Commission this week. But he noted that on the larger issue of coastal access, there's a fine line to tread.

"Obviously, I'd like to open up access to the coast for all Californians," Peters said. "But there are constraints on two sides: there are legitimate property rights that all too often are ignored and there are concerns that too much access could spoil the very coastline people are coming to experience."

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