Blame Game

by Carolyn Chase


The California Coastal Commission was established by voter initiative in 1972 (Proposition 20 - The California Coastal Initiative) and made permanent by the Legislature in 1976. The Coastal Commission's charge is to balance public, natural and commercial concerns along our coast. With less than 5% of Southern California's coastal wetlands estimated to remain in existence, one might wonder how well the "balance" has been struck. One court decision that could help redress the obvious imbalance has building industry lobbyists pushing political pressure and editorial disinformation up and down the state.

On April 16, 1999, a California court held that the Coastal Act precludes the siting of houses in the remaining wetland "environmentally sensitive habitat areas" (ESHAs) in the Coastal Zone. The case is known as the Bolsa Chica decision, named after a complex of wetlands and eucalyptus trees that support some of Orange County's last remaining birds of prey, including the white-tailed kite, marsh hawk, and sharp skinned hawk.

Bolsa Chica has become the whipping boy for developer hysteria throughout the state. It's been said that it will stop just about everything, including the region's MSCP (Multiple Species Conservation Plan) and the widening of I-5. I've read that it means mitigation - the saving or restoring of property in exchange for developing another - is now "an endangered species."

It's been in the newspapers and on TV. It must be true, right? In fact, it's an orchestrated campaign to weaken the Coastal Act to allow inappropriate development in our last open spaces and natural habitats on the coast.

The main San Diego poster child for this disinformation campaign to weaken the Coastal Act has been State Route 56. Media outlets erroneously reported that SR56 cost increases and delays are due to Bolsa Chica, because a part of the right-of-way destroys 1/2-acre of wetland.

What are the publicly-known facts?

The cost overruns and time delays for several major Caltrans projects were first reported on March 9 (as required by the state "use it or lose it" law) to the SANDAG Transportation sub-committee and then to the SANDAG Board at their regular March meeting. In a follow-up memo dated April 20, 2000, from Caltrans to SANDAG, the cost increases were estimated in further detail and divided into six categories with an estimate for all increases for SR56 at $31-40 million.

The increases attributable to the Coastal Commission permit are estimated at $4-6 million. These costs are mostly to deal with polluted stormwater runoff from SR-56 and to protect Penasquitos Lagoon and our coastal waters from more polluted sedimentation, oil and grease. Let each politician who claims this pollution-filtration investment isn't worth the money stage a press conference on the shores of the Penasquitos Lagoon! While commentaries have attributed cost "increases" due to the water quality improvements to be as high as $30 million, the actual costs necessary to comply with the Bolsa Chica-related provisions of the Coastal Act are only $250,000. There were no time delays related to Bolsa Chica.

Why the lobbying brouhaha?

Project proponents are infuriated that the Coastal Act places limits on wetlands destruction and mitigation and that the Bolsa Chica decision could help make the limits stick. Bolsa Chica does set out strict standards of mitigation for the destruction of sensitive coastal resources. This makes sense, since it is clearly the underlying thrust of the widely supported Coastal Act and the fact that ESHAs in the coastal zone have been seriously depleted.

The court recognized the danger in relying on uncontrolled mitigation
(destroying wetlands and attempting to reconstruct them elsewhere to accommodate development just because wetlands are "degraded"):

"if the application of ... otherwise strict limitations also depends on the relative viability of an ESHA, developers will be encouraged to find threats and hazards to all ESHAs located in economically inconvenient locations. The pursuit of such hazards would in turn only promote the isolation and transfer of ESHA habitat values to more economically convenient locations. Such a system of isolation and transfer based on economic convenience would of course be completely contrary to the goal of the Coastal Act, which is to protect all coastal zone resources and provide heightened protection to ESHAs," and "... would open the door to any type of development in a wetland whenever a finding could be made that funds were otherwise unavailable to restore degraded wetlands."

Most of the wetlands in the Coastal Zone in Southern California are already gone and most of the rest degraded to one degree or another. Ultimately, California will have to decide whether we will enforce long-standing limits on encroachments into the remaining wetlands complexes in the Coastal Zone - or whether we will continue to bend over backward to find new loopholes to avoid those limits.

What does this really have to do with SR56? Not much. The Coastal Commission has the balancing powers needed to permit takings of ESHAs when the appropriate findings are made. Bolsa Chica did find that roads couldn't be widened through coastal wetland ESHAs just to accommodate traffic from new housing. But it also said that "wetlands could be eliminated if needed for a road or highway,..." as long as the Commission finds that taking the wetlands resource is balanced with protections of other coastal environmental values. In the case of SR-56, protecting the water quality of Penasquitos Lagoon has been found to be more important than the loss of the 1/2 acre wetlands. The Commission voted unanimously on May 10th to approve the permit for SR-56. This will not likely stop area NIMBYs from legal action that will undoubtedly set-off another round of hysteria. Hopefully, media outlets will take more care in looking to report all sides of the issues.

Project proponents claiming that all coastal road-widening projects are going to grind to halt are reminiscent of Chicken Little. Though I can't help but wonder when we will realize that limits are a good thing, project proponents would do well to focus on the narrow issues that deserve consideration instead of pushing exaggeration and misinformation.

Mitigation has not been stopped by the Bolsa Chica decision. Mitigation for things that should not be allowed in the first place is the issue. Mitigation was never meant as a justification for the destruction of resources - but as a remedy when there were no other feasible alternatives to the destruction. That which should not be destroyed doesn't need to be mitigated. Some things should not be allowed to be gobbled up by growth. In Southern California's heavily populated Coastal Zone, that includes the remaining wetlands and ESHAs.

If more development is truly needed in the Coastal Zone, why should it be allowed to encroach even further into sensitive areas? Can't we grow without destroying what's left? Wasn't that the premise of "smart growth"? Only by establishing and enforcing limits can growth become smart.