The California Coastal Commission, which ultimately governs planning and development on the UCSB campus, was declared unconstitutional last week by a Superior Court judge in Sacramento.
Judge Charles C. Kobayashi ruled that the CCC violated California’s “separation of powers” doctrine, which outlines the necessity of checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
One way to make the CCC constitutional would be to let the governor appoint a higher proportion of the members, who serve two-year terms, Southern California Coastal Commission member Gregg Hart said. The State Legislature currently appoints eight members of the commission, while the governor appoints four.
It is possible the Superior Court decision could weaken the agency, but Hart said that the commission will appeal the ruling and is confident that the decision will be overturned at the State Supreme Court level, leaving the agency’s operations unaffected.
The commission, which has overseen all development plans within the California coastal zone for nearly the past 30 years, will continue to operate as appeals are filed, Hart said. “I don’t even know if anything needs to be fixed,” Hart said.
Hart described the ruling as “impractical,” because the commission has been making rulings with the same setup since its establishment by voter initiative in 1972. “Would you look back at every ruling for the past 30 years? It’s quite a can of worms.”
UCSB lies completely inside the commission’s jurisdiction and the campus is affected primarily in the areas of physical planning and construction.
The commission has helped organizations and concerned students and citizens uphold the regulations of the California Coastal Act of 1976 – which mandated statewide protection of the coastal environment – on a number of occasions, Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District director Ariana Katovich said.
“The Coastal Commission is the only check and balance for the university,” Katovich said. “I think the university would be a runaway train [of development] without the Coastal Commission … the fact that they’ve been ruled illegal – I can’t even articulate about that. I think [the outcome would] be tragic.”
The commission’s main objective is to plan for and regulate land and water uses in the coastal zone that are consistent with the policies of the Coastal Act. “Commission jurisdiction applies to all private and public entities and covers all types of development activities,” the commission’s website states.
In 1998, Isla Vista property owners pushed for a seawall to temporarily prevent erosion. Though the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved the construction, the CCC stepped in and overturned that decision. The commission similarly rejected the university’s attempt to create a rock revetment at Campus Point.
“[The commission] said ‘We’re gonna protect the coast for the future.’ What a concept,” Katovich said.
The commission also makes decisions about public access to beaches. When the UCSB Surfrider Foundation complained to the Coastal Commission about beach obstruction by the marine science lab, the agency made regulations to keep beach access safe and open, Hart said.
Although the commission’s review can alter the scope of UCSB construction projects, it is only one factor in the planning and building of new facilities, Chancellor Henry Yang said. Manzanita Village Residence Hall is a current on-campus project that had to undergo CCC approval.
“Manzanita Village is a good example of fulfilling a need for additional student housing, while mitigating the environmental impact of the building and gaining the approval of the Coastal Commission,” Yang said.
The Manzanita Village project was going to be “all over the wetlands” if the Coastal Commission had not been involved, Katovich said. Sensitive areas such as wetlands need that “voice of protection” that they would not have without the commission, Katovich said.
“[UCSB planners] still aren’t gods around here – [they’ve] got to stay responsible and we’ve got the commission to keep them responsible.”
Without the commission, there would likely be taller buildings around the campus, California Public Interest Group (CalPIRG) spokesperson Jennette Gayer said.
“The housing push here might get a little out of control … and be really detrimental to the ocean. It’s kind of a risky gamble,” she said.
One of California’s greatest assets is the coast, Gayer said. “[Without the commission] there might be a lot more development that could hurt both tourism and residents.”
The commission will continue to work until a court instructs it to do otherwise, Hart said. He disagreed with Judge Kobayashi’s decision on the grounds that other state agencies have membership similarly appointed from different bodies.
“If it was going to be challenged, it should have happened 30 years ago,” Hart said.
Since local governments make nominations for the executive and legislative parties to choose commission members, Hart thinks there is enough input from the public to make the current setup valid.
“I don’t know if the judge considered that,” he said.