Cutting Off the North Coast

With its lush vegetation, diverse wildlife, and often unforgiving weather, California’s vast North Coast can offer solitude amidst stunning natural beauty. Largely uninhabited and undeveloped, the 300-mile-long stretch of shoreline running along the Pacific Ocean edges of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties is lined with massive cliffs and colossal trees. While this can be a boon to nature lovers and anyone wanting to get away from the bustle of civilized areas, it also means that it’s insulated from the watchful eye of regulators charged with protecting coastal areas. And these days, the coast is going more unwatched than ever—Sacramento’s ongoing budget crisis has had a sizeable impact upon the capabilities of the state’s already strapped Coastal Commission.

The California Coastal Commission, with its mandate of upholding the 1976 Coastal Act, is the last line of defense against unwarranted coastal development, pollution, and the blockage of public access to the shoreline. The agency, formed in 1972 by Proposition 20—the Coastal Initiative—was given the final word on development permit applications up to 1,000 feet inland in an effort to protect coastal wetlands, waterways, scenic vistas, and the beaches themselves from the ever-increasing development pressures. The bulk of the commission staff’s work involves sending officers out to project sites to evaluate the potential impacts of proposed developments. Additionally, when violations of the Coastal Act are reported, enforcement personnel make site visits to investigate and recommend action.

But in the years since its inception, the agency has suffered numerous budget cuts, and its staff has dwindled from 200 in 1980 to fewer than 130 today. During the recent economic crisis, the same problems facing Main Street are taking their toll upon state agencies like the Coastal Commission as well. “State revenue is reliant upon income tax, which is deeply affected by the ups and downs of the economy,” says Bob Merrill, the Commission’s North Coast district manager.

In years past, inflation has caused the Coastal Commission’s static budget to diminish in terms of real dollar value, but the impact of the 2008 economic meltdown has been even more severe, creating such a time and money crunch that hard-pressed staffers can’t always head off environmental problems before they start.

Not enough people, not enough hours

Bob Merrill couldn’t work longer hours if he wanted to—with state-mandated furloughs in effect this year, he has roughly 14 percent less time on the job.

Merrill notes that the furloughs created a de facto staff reduction, leaving less time for staffers to complete a growing amount of work. The North Coast in particular, with its vast open space and sparse population, never had that many representatives on the Coastal Commission staff — most are assigned to the busier Southern California districts. The furloughs have made it even tougher for them to stay on top of permit applications and reports of coastal land use violations.

“We still have an enforcement program, and we’re still enforcing, but clearly with less staff resources, it takes a longer time to respond to reports of violations,” Merrill says. “We’re not as responsive as we need to be.”

As a result, Merrill says, some violations cannot be dealt with right away, which may lead to ground and water contamination, development upon sensitive habitat, erosion, and loss of coastal access. In other cases, the permit approval process has stretched from weeks to months, frustrating good faith applicants who are trying to develop according to California law. “Most applicants wish the process would go faster,” says Merrill. For example the city of Eureka applied for a zoning conversion to turn an old restaurant into office space, and because the building is located next to a slough, the city had to apply for a Coastal Commission permit.

However, says Merrill, this September “They said they were frustrated by the waiting and withdrew their permit application.” Most days, Merrill and his staff are in the office, fielding calls from permit applicants and local government officials, reviewing applications and local coastal plans, and attending interagency meetings. But the bread and butter of the job is going out on site visits, during which commission staffers evaluate developments’ effects on natural resources such as habitat, views, or coastal access. “That’s one of the enjoyable parts of the job, quite frankly, is to get out on this amazing coastline,” Merrill says. But this, too, has been a victim of cost-cutting.

The North Coast office is in Eureka, but Merrill says visits to more remote locations in Del Norte and Mendocino counties have been severely limited by budget cuts. No money means no gasoline to get places; it’s that simple. “Budget shortfalls make it difficult to travel to those places,” he says. Worse, very few issues that need to be inspected can be dealt with all at once, meaning expensive return trips for staff members.

The recession has also undermined the commission’s enforcement power. There are four people in Merrill’s office who process permit applications for coastal development, but only one enforcement officer, Nancy Cave. Tasked with investigating reports of Coastal Act violations, Cave spends a lot of her time in the field, performing site visits and making recommendations about what actions should be taken. Although occasionally assisted by unpaid interns, Cave must cover all 300 miles of the North Coast district by herself, while supervising two other enforcement officers covering another 450-mile stretch from Sonoma County down to San Luis Obispo County.

Worse, she isn’t even based in Eureka with the rest of the district staff, but a five-hour drive away at the commission’s San Francisco headquarters. “We’re always busy and always on the road,” she says. “I’m a supervisor who should have an officer in the Eureka office, but I haven’t had one for nine years.”

When a violation of the Coastal Act is called in, it must be visually confirmed for the official record. However, Cave is often compelled to carry out her investigations by correspondence; over the years, she has developed a rapport with city and county officials who can be her eyes and ears in a pinch. It’s not ideal, but under the circumstances, Merrill says it’s the best they can do.

Having begun her career with the Coastal Commission staff in 1977, Cave is no stranger to adversity. “When I started in enforcement in 1985, there was no enforcement program, so I was the only staff member on the whole coast,” she says — that’s roughly 1,100 miles. She says that the recent round of budget cuts and furloughs have made handling her current caseload tricky—especially when she has to travel to the far northern end of the state, which can be an eight hour drive—but the fourteen percent pay cut staffers have endured as a result of the state’s financial woes has been especially painful. “It’s tough, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to do their jobs,” she says.

A bad example

The results of under-enforcement can be seen in places like Pacific Shores, the skeletal remains of a never-built development located just north of Crescent City, in Merrill’s struggling North Coast District. Consisting of a subdivision road grid laid out in the 1960s—before either the Coastal Initiative or the Coastal Act were passed, and during a time of significant growth in California—it has become a perennial problem for Merrill, Cave, and the rest of the district’s overextended staff. Back then, land speculators hoped to expand into places that sounded good on paper, but in reality, were largely uninhabitable or lacked access to services. Today, the Coastal Commission has to deal with the environmental fallout of what happens when unbuildable lots are sold to unsuspecting buyers.

Although problems like these are generally handled by county planning and building departments, it just so happens that Pacific Shores is right next to the ocean, and therefore within the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction. Pacific Shores—a forlorn locale just far enough away from municipal resources to keep it away from consistent monitoring—never got the water and sewer infrastructure required for landowners to actually build houses there. It had a water district for a few years, but even after collecting fees, pipes were never laid. It exists as a swampy area next to a huge lagoon; officials from Del Norte County say that most of the lots are flooded half of the year, making them physically uninhabitable.

Today, the area serves as an impromptu dumping ground, strewn with abandoned cars, appliances, and other trash—Merrill says that this trash often chokes the adjacent lagoon. A dozen or so people live on their unimproved lots in cars, trailers, and even tents. Unexplained brush fires are common, as is crime—a meth lab was found there a few years ago, and the empty streets are regularly used for illegal drag racing. “I still see people dumping used oil and car batteries out in the weeds,” says Dave Mason, a code enforcement officer for the Del Norte County Planning Department. “I’m not an environmental specialist by any stretch of the imagination, but dumping that kind of stuff out there can’t be good.”

Mason says the county has limited resources, and can only afford to send a cleanup crew—with the dump trucks required to haul everything away—every three to five years to clean up the trash. The California Department of Fish & Game has offered some help by working with local activist groups to buy up properties so that the area can eventually be turned into a wildlife refuge. Lots are still being sold on the Internet, though, bringing in often hostile owners who are not eager to leave their cheaply acquired land for someplace more suitable for building. And because Pacific Shores is located several hours away from the North Coast District’s Eureka headquarters, Merrill says that neither he nor any of his staff can get up there often enough to pay much more attention to the area than the county does.

So with government officials rarely available to enforce environmental law, Pacific Shores largely does without it.

What’s next?

The Coastal Commission doesn’t just watch over housing developments; in the North Coast district, development often takes the form of road construction and other public infrastructure projects. Merrill points out that even projects receiving federal stimulus funding require Coastal Commission review if they’re in his jurisdiction. “We’re finding that because so many projects [proposed in our district] are public infrastructure projects funded by grant and stimulus money, it’s difficult with all the furloughs and budget cuts to dedicate available staff to all of these projects,” he says. Yet federal stimulus money carries with it certain deadlines, making the lagging Coastal Commission permit application review process a threat to federal funding. “Project applicants, especially for stimulus-funded projects, have deadlines they have to meet,” says Merrill.

A few stimulus-funded projects awaiting Coastal Commission review include a shoreline revetment project in Crescent City, Humboldt State University’s dock expansion on Humboldt Bay, and improvements needed on the Klamath River boat ramp. All of those projects have to be reviewed by the Coastal Commission staff to gauge their potential environmental effects.

ABX3 33, a state energy department reorganization bill working its way through the state assembly, would establish a new energy agency, giving it sole authority to issue site permits for energy projects and exemption from Coastal Commission review. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger touts the move as a money-saver, but even if it speeds up the construction process, some critics view it as yet another potential roadblock for the beleaguered Coastal Commission.

Meanwhile, commission staffers worry that furloughs and budget cuts will continue to make doing their jobs an uphill battle. “The news doesn’t sound terribly encouraging that it will change soon,” says Merrill of his staffing shortfall, although he looks with hope to July 1 of next year, when the new budget is scheduled to come out.

And most of all, commission staffers worry that with less attention being paid to human activity in remote places, the fate of the natural environment—water quality, wildlife habitat, and coastal access—will suffer. Leaving violations unresolved creates a lawless atmosphere in places like Pacific Shores where nobody is watching most of the time, and lets environmental problems fester. Says Cave, “You’re sending out a message that it’s okay to break the law.”

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