A Pelican’s Perspective on Coastal Commission Developments

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Quincy Lee/Science & Tech Editor

Quincy Lee
Science & Tech Editor

California has 1,100 miles of pristine coastline. From the shores of Crescent City to the La Jolla cliffs, the golden state coast has hundreds of unique natural landmarks. The interaction between the ocean and the rocks creates incredible features such as Camel Rock in Trinidad and Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz, not to mention the endless array of sandy beaches.

This fragile ecosystem of kelp, fish and sea birds is officially protected by the California Coastal Act, signed into law 40 years ago in the summer of 1976. The legislation created the California Coastal Commission to serve as the governing entity responsible for preserving the state’s scenic resources and guarantee public access in the future. It is the group of people solely designated to preserve California’s coastal zone and allow natural life to survive.

Mr. Pelican turned 40 this year as well. He has been migrating up and down this coast every year, following the rolling contours of the cliffs, wetlands and river mouths found only in California. He avoids the cold winter weather by flying south to Mexico. But as he traveled north this past summer, he didn’t fly over the same California coast.

Since the longstanding leader on coastal preservation and executive director of the California Coastal Commission, Charles Lestor, was fired in February, the Commission has allowed several developmental projects to begin construction on previously untouched areas.

For 10 years, David Evans has fought to build a mansion complex upon the coastal ridge above the Malibu lagoon. It wasn’t until this summer that the Coastal Commission approved his project plans, even though the costs of construction include degrading the coastal sage habitat and causing severe erosion risk in an area already prone to landslides. Regarding this decision, Sara Wan, former Coastal Commissioner said, “the current Commission is shirking its responsibility to protect the coastline.”

This hill used to be Mr. Pelican’s first stop on the way up the coast. Years ago, this was the place where Mr. Pelican first learned how to use waves’ energy to propel his tired wings. He and the rest of his pod would nest in these hills to rest after the first segment of their migration. However, with the new mansions taking root over the hills, Mr. Pelican’s chances of living in this area are eroding away.

There are twelve board members on the California Coastal Commission, six of which are also city councilmembers, elected officials of coastal towns. These people, such as Councilman Eric Howell, don’t always have the coasts’ best interest in mind. Howell received a large proportion of his campaign contributions from McCabe & Company, a large construction company in Pismo Beach, where Howell is a city councilmember. Months later, Howell voted in favor of McCabe’s project proposal, allowing the company to construct on a whole section of Pismo’s untouched coastal bluffs.

Mr. Pelican remembers Pismo Beach as the place he learned to catch fish when he was young. Searching for his prey, he glides high above the water. Once a fish is spotted, Mr. Pelican curls in his wings, flies downward and spearheads into the sea with the style and grace of an Olympic diver. After Howell and the Commission’s decision, Mr. Pelican wasn’t able to stop in Pismo this year due to the buildings on the cliff. There was not enough room for him to perch, so he continued north.

Not only has the Commission been increasingly lenient on development measures, many of the members have been accused of breaking the ethics code. The nonprofit Spotlight on Coastal Corruption, has filed legal cases against commissioners Mark Vargas, Wendy Mitchell, Martha McClure and even chairman Steve Kinsey. The nonprofit accuses them of not disclosing ex-parte communication with developers, meaning that these commissioners met with developers directly before voting on the measures. These commissioners allegedly held these meetings with developers and their lobbyists privately, later approving projects not deemed worthy under the Coastal Act.

Mr. Pelican’s interests can’t be expressed in these closed meetings between developers and the Coastal Commission. He, and the environmental groups dedicated to helping him survive, are not granted access to the discussions. As a result of the developmental agreements, they are not allowed access to the very places under question.

An example of such a meeting would be between the Coastal Commissioners and Ed Ghandour, a real estate developer on California’s central coast. His expansive project proposal, Monterey Bay Shores Resort, after twenty years of denial by the California Coastal Commission, has now been allowed to start building. Despite massive resistance from local community members and the measures of the Coastal Act, the Commissioners still gave the development the go ahead.

The approval from the Commission allows Ghandour to own the beaches and sand dunes despite Section 30001.5 of the Coastal Act stating, “The legislature’s goals being to maximize public recreational opportunities in the coastal zone consistent with sound resources conservation principles.” The entity that previously upheld the Coastal Act’s promise of public access to natural landscapes just gave way to another person determined to utilize it for personal reasons.

Mr. Pelican, after having flown miles and miles, is distraught from the long journey. He was hoping to get some rest in his favorite coastal shrub on the Monterey coastline. But when he arrived, his favorite resting location was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there lay the construction zone of the Monterey Bay Shores Resort, described on its website as “1.34 million square feet that will now be 184 hotel rooms and 184 condos.” With this amount of development, there is no room for Mr. Pelican’s shrub hangout spot and no public access for any of his friends, the snowy plovers.

Despite the road being under construction, Mr. Pelican made the 1,100 miles up the coast. His destination was the northernmost coast of California and the landmark for which he was named, Pelican Bay. In a few short months he will traverse the coast once again, possibly without being able to go to more of the places where he loved to fish and fly.

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