How the California Coastal Commission Operates

The California Coastal Commission meets four to five days per month, and each commissioner is paid $100 per day for those meetings. It is essentially an unpaid job that requires full-time work to do it right. Says Sara Wan, chairperson of the commission, "About ten days before the day of hearings you receive two mailings ... you're talking about 3,000 pages, single-spaced. Sometimes applicants and opponents want to come and meet with you, so you have to set aside time for that." In short, it is a lot of work for essentially no money. Though not all commissioners do, Wan she says she spends full time at it. "I do it because I think it's important," she says.

Aside from approving or disapproving plans, there are also enforcement problems. Says Wan, "You have people who never bother to come in to begin with; you have people who get a permit and then ... basically do what they want." Others simply make changes in their projects along the way. It varies from innocent things that people just don't think about to "taking down half of a mountain."

The commission does not follow up and check to see if projects comply. Wan says there are not the resources for that. Most violations, says Wan, are reported by commission staff who are visiting an area to review new permits; neighbors do report violations too, she says, but are somewhat hesitant to complain unless there is a grudge involved. There are more violations in the rural areas because of the isolation.

The commission does have cease and desist authority but Wan says, "We don't usually do that right away." Instead they ask the person to come in for a permit—even if it is an "after-the-fact permit." In the case of work that is already done, a permit will be issued if a permit would have been issued had the person come in in the first place. Says Wan, "We might approve the permit in whole; we might approve it in part and say, 'no, the balance you got to take out and restore.'" There are some who simply won't come in for permits at all. In that case a formal cease-and-desist process is used.

Remedies, says Wan, depend on circumstances, "but if it's really blatant and they did what they're not supposed to do, you can get them to remove it."

California Coastal Commission