Update: (Sep. 6, 2013): AB 976 has passed in the Senate.
A bill the Sierra Club co-sponsors, AB 976 (Atkins), will likely come up for a floor vote in the Senate in the coming week. To help make sure it passes, please call your senator and urge an AYE vote on AB 976.
In a nutshell, the bill will let the Coastal Commission fine chronic scofflaws who violate the Coastal Act. The Coastal Commission is rare among regulatory agencies in its inability to fine lawbreakers.
Current law ties the hands of the California Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission cannot bring Coastal Act violators into compliance because it does not have the authority to impose fines. AB 976 will grant the Coastal Commission administrative civil-liability authority.
Coastal Act violators: breaking the law and getting away with it
The Coastal Commission is charged with protecting one of California’s most important natural, cultural, and economic assets: its 1,100 miles of coastline. In 1972, California voters overwhelmingly voted to support Prop 20, creating the California Coastal Commission.
Protecting and guaranteeing public access to the coast is a core principal of the Coastal Act. It is one of the primary reasons that the Coastal Commission was created in 1972 by the voters through the initiative process.
Coastal Act violations threaten beach access, wildlife, and fragile coastal ecosystems. Each violation represents blocked public access, unpermitted development near a beach, or a threat to sensitive wetland ecosystems. California only has one coastline, and damage to the coast can’t always be undone. AB 976 is important to address Coastal Act violations, deter future Coastal Act violations, and protect California’s coast in perpetuity.
Addressing the backlog, discouraging future violations
Today, the Coastal Commission has a backlog of over 1,800 unresolved Coastal Act violations. The largest share of these violations, nearly one-third, involves illegally blocking public access to the coast. These violations include putting up false “no parking signs”, blocking public paths to the beach, and failing to create public access ways that were mandated in a coastal-development permit. Some violators have essentially attempted to illegally transform public beaches into private beaches. Although many of these violations have been reported to and verified by the commission, under current law the commission has little recourse to correct these violations.
Currently, the Coastal Commission must take violators who refuse to comply with orders to court through an action of the attorney general. In the last 10 years, the Commission has only taken four violators to court through this burdensome process. By authorizing the Coastal Commission to issue administrative penalties, it will finally have an effective, nearly universal enforcement tool to deter violations of the Coastal Act and to resolve issues more quickly.
For environmental enforcement agencies, preventing the law from being broken in the first place is critically important because environmental damage can’t always be undone or easily restored. AB 976 will not only help the Coastal Commission address existing Coastal Act violations, but will deter them from happening in the future.
Recommended by the legislative analyst’s office
AB 976 is the result of a recommendation by the legislative analyst’s office. Administrative penalty authority is already the norm: 21 state agencies already have the ability to confer administrative civil penalties, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, State Lands Commission, Oil Spill Response Administrator, and Air Resources Board.
The fair and limited procedure outlined in AB 976 ensures due process by following the same procedures already used by most state agencies: the Coastal Commission follows the Administrative Procedures Act, the same set of procedures followed by other state agencies that can issue administrative penalties. AB 976 will grant the Coastal Commission the ability to administratively impose fines upon serious and intentional violators of the Coastal Act, explicitly exempting, “unintentional, minor violations of this division that only cause de minimis harm.”
This common-sense bill will ensure that those who break the law are held accountable. The public entrusted the Coastal Commission with one of California’s most precious resources, and it is essential that the Commission have the authority to enforce the Coastal Act and protect the coast for future generations.
To help make sure it passes, please call your senator and urge an AYE vote on AB 976.
For information on how to contact your senator, go to http://senate.ca.gov/senators.
For more information , contact:
desk: (916)557-1100, ext. 109
Kathryn Phillips, director, Sierra Club California