February 23, 2008News AnalysisIn California, Coastal Commission Wields Vast PowerBy JENNIFER STEINHAUERSAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — The battle here over a proposed toll road near a state parkhas entangled powerful interests from across California: Labor is pitted againstsurfers, American Indians against developers, commuters against campers andcoastal people against inland dwellers.But by voting down the proposal this month, the California Coastal Commission — a12-member panel that gets little attention outside California — once again flexedits muscle as the most formidable player of all.Created by a ballot initiative three decades ago as the protector of the state’s1,100-mile coast, the commission has long been a thorn in the side of developers,municipal governments and wealthy beachfront property owners, its dominion lackingin comparisons in other states.“The commission is the single most powerful land use authority in the UnitedStates,” said Jonathan Zasloff, a law professor at the University of California,Los Angeles, who has researched the panel, “given the high values of itsjurisdiction and its high environmental assets.”The commission has never been shy about its reach, and makes no apologies for therole its members — who are appointed by the governor and State Legislature —believe voters gave them during the heart of the environmental movement in the1970s, when the California Coastal Act was passed.The commission has taken on the development notions of companies big and small,and entire cities. In 1998, when the Hearst Corporation tried to build a resortcomplex with hotels and a golf course near the famous castle in San Luis ObispoCounty, the commission shot it down.The commission has also taken on the wealthy residents of beach areas who believethat their homeownership entitles them to private beaches, most recently theHollywood mogul David Geffen. Movie stars do not scare commissioners either. Lastyear, Clint Eastwood backed a plan to develop a stretch of the Monterey Peninsulainto a golf course, a proposal that was flattened by the panel.In 1987, the commission was dealt a rare blow by the United States Supreme Court,which ruled against its attempt to permit a homeowner to replace a small bungalowon a beachfront lot with a larger house with the condition that they allow thepublic access to the beachfront.But earlier this decade, members were back tangling with the city of Malibu overits plan for managing coastal building, essentially dictating to the city what itwould do. After several trips to court, the two sides came to a tense accord in2005.“The commission basically tells us what to do, and we’re expected to do it,” saidJeff Jennings, the mayor of Malibu. “And in many cases that extends down to thesmallest details imaginable, like what color you paint your houses, what kind oflight bulbs you can use in certain places.”To Mr. Jennings, the battle in Malibu was not over development visions, butmunicipal rights. And as has often been the case, the city came up short whenpitted against the commission.