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Environmentalists assess California Coastal Commission votes

June 14, 2011 |  8:40 pm

Environmental groups this week ranked the 12 members of California Coastal Commission and found that overall they voted “pro-coast” less than two-thirds of the time on key issues.

The California Coastal Commission Conservation Voting Chart has been compiled annually for 23 years by the Sierra Club, the League for Coastal Protection, the Surfrider Foundation and other groups. It looks at trends to see “how well they are carrying out the Coastal Act,” said Michael Endicott of Sierra Club California. “We want to look at the big picture to determine if they are getting better or worse.”

The 2010 tally was based on 21 projects out of more than 1,000 that came before the commission. Overall, the environmental groups awarded the commission a 61% “pro-coast” voting score, down from 66% in 2009.

But some commissioners scored much lower, including Los Angeles Commissioner Steve Kram, co-founder of an entertainment finance company, who, the report said, “often is absent from hearings." His score for 2010 was 41%, while his alternate, Dan Secord of Santa Barbara, had a comparable voting score of 38%.

Kram did not respond to a phone message left at his office. (UPDATE 8:08 am June 15: Reached later by telephone, Kram declined to offer an on-the-record response to the report.]

Commissioner Steve Blank declined to discuss the report, and referred a reporter to several members of the Sierra Club. The commission staff did not respond to requests for comments.

Commissioners appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have slipped back from gains in 2009, according to the tally. Only 43% of their votes were “pro-coast” in 2010 on the key issues listed by the report.

The 21 projects were those considered to have the highest environmental impacts; those which involved key provisions of the 1976 Coastal Act; and those which had the potential to set statewide precedent.

Some decisions were applauded by environmental and community groups. For example, the commission followed recommendations of a Laguna Beach citizen task force that opposed development of the Hobo Aliso Ridge. The commission issued a cease and desist order against developers and also made the them restore sensitive habitat for the big-leaved crownbeard, a native flower.

In the Port of San Diego, the commission denied a permit because developers planned to close large areas off to the public.

But environmentalists criticized  several other decisions, including the granting of a permit for the largest desalinization plant in the United States, in Carlsbad, San Diego. Endicott called the commission’s approval of the Poseidon Resources permit “shocking and the most difficult to understand” and said it was based on “grotesque errors and false conclusions.”

He added it would undermine California’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts because desalinization plants burn large amounts of fuel to extract salt from ocean water. 

Another decision criticized by environmental groups  was the granting of a  permit for desalinization test wells in San Luis Obispo.  Endicott called the action “piecemeal,” an effort to separate the project into several components, rather than examining the long term impact of the project.

“We’re not against development,” Endicott said, but “we want to avoid destructive developing, to make sure the coast doesn’t disappear." The groups, he said, seek to prevent  houses from being  built on eroding cliffs, and property owners from blocking public access to beaches. A primary concern is to protect fisheries and wildlife, he said.

Since 1987, when the environment coalition first began publishing a voting chart, the commission’s scores have ranged from 76% in 1997 to 38% in 2008. Over two decades, it averaged 51%.


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Photo: Penny Elia of the Hobo-Aliso Canyons Neighborhood Association looks over the area proposed by the Esslinger Family Trust to build 18 hillside mansions known as the Driftwood Estates in south Laguna Beach on land environmental groups claim was illegally graded.Credit: Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times