Environmental Law

Envt'l Law News Spring 2017, Vol. 26, No. 1

Waves of Contentious Issues Still Batter the California Coastal Act at 40

by Angela Howe* (Parts I & V), Jana Zimmer** (Part II), Jennifer Lucchesi*** (Part III), and John Erskine (Part IV)****


The California coast is one of the state’s most valuable assets, so the management of the coast is of the utmost importance. Sound coastal management is needed to support the state’s thriving coastal tourism economy and other coastal-dependent activities. In 1972, California voters approved an initiative to proactively govern and manage the state’s valuable coastal resources. The initiative was drafted in response to rampant coastal development and the threat of beach access closures. Prop 20 (identified on the ballot as the Coastal Zone Conservation Act) established the California Coastal Commission and six regional commissions.1 Four years later, the legislature codified Prop 20 and enacted the California Coastal Act of 1976, which eliminated the regional commissions but requires geographic diversity for the voting commissioners.

In the 40th year of the Coastal Act, the California Coastal Commission experienced a big year and some major changes, culminating in the controversial firing of Executive Director Charles Lester in February 2016. Long-time Commission staffer Jack Ainsworth was the acting Executive Director while the Commission searched for a new leader. In February 2017, the Commission announced that Mr. Ainsworth was selected as the new Executive Director. The new head of the agency has some daunting tasks ahead, including how to increase low-cost visitor-serving accommodations on the coast and generally open the coast to a wider range of demographic groups; how to reconcile the long-debated seawall and coastal armoring policy of the state; how to manage coastal development in light of climate change; and how to assure the transparency of the Commission by altering the Coastal Act’s provisions regarding ex parte communications

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