On the Edge: Stories about the Creation and Early Years of California’s Monumental Coastal Protection Program: Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA)

by trenzpruca

Bridge on Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County,...

Bridge on Highway 101 in Santa Barbara County, California north of Los Angeles. this and other coastal highways are heavily traveled. Some 84 percent of the state’s residents live within 30 miles of the coast, and this concentration has resulted in increased land use pressures. Restrictions on coastal development within 1,000 yards of the shoreline were tightened with the passage in November, 1972, of the Coastal Zone Conservation Act. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the Edge: Stories about the Creation and Early Years of California’s Monumental Coastal Protection Program.

Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA)

Recently I have been involved in a series of email exchanges with Norbert Dall a long-time expert in matters regrding the California Coastal Commission who has amassed perhaps the most comprehensive library regarding the agency, its history and its activities. The focus of the emails were directed to assisting environmental scientist Michael Vasey‘s efforts to write a paper about the genesis of the California Coastal Commission’s regulatory policies affecting ESHAs. In the last decade or so the Coastal Commission‘s interpretation of these policies greatly broadened their scope. The increase in the reach of the Coastal Commission‘s authority has been accompanied by an equivalent increase in public controversy.

It has been fascinating watching Norbert and Michael‘s meticulous exploration into the subject; combing through inumerable documents and conducting interviews that attempt to refresh almost 40-year-old memories to try to piece together how a concept that originally was ignored but ultimately became so prominent a part of the Coastal Regulatory Program.

I believe it may be helpful to their efforts and anyone else who may have an interest in the subject, to be aware that at the time the Coastal Plan was adopted and the 1976 California Coastal Act passed through the California Legislature, “environmentalism”, as we have come to know it, was in its infancy. Novel ideas and concepts were constantly being thrown around as people struggled with trying to discover the best ways to deal with the negative environmental and social effects of development.

During that time I was responsible for drafting large sections of the Coastal Plan and managing the Commission‘s Interim Development Regulation efforts. Later as consultant to the California State Senate I was intensivly involved in the drafting of the legislation that became The Coastal Act of 1976. From this vantage point I had the opportunity to observe the process at first hand.

In the course of preparing the Coastal Plan, we were initially guided by California‘s previous efforts, most prominatly the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Plan, as well as regional planning theories prevalent in the planning schools at the time.

We began the interim development regulation process and developing the structure of the Coastal Plan by focusing our attention on what was uniquely “coastal.” After all, we reasoned, the Coastal Zone was simply a juridical area designated for special regulation that was not imposed elsewhere. We, therefore tried to identify those “resources” that were specifically associated with the Coastal Zone.

For example, beaches along the ocean could be considered “coastal” along with the dune systems surrounding them. On the other hand, a bunch of sand buried a mile or so inland under some turf generally would not considered a “coastal resource.” Just because something someone thought was valuable but had a tenuous or no relation to the Coastal Zone other than location, especially if it appeared other places inland would usually not be considered a “coastal resource” that would be subject to the heightened regulatory regime being imposed in the Coastal Zone, unless one could demonstrate other things that somehow “connected” it uniquely to the Coastal Zone.

Carrying this concept out further, a natural process or flora or fauna habitat that existed in the Coastal Zone that may be impacted by development, but existed in abundance elsewhere outside of the Coastal Zone was usually not considered in need of unique coastal protection policies no mater how sensitive they may be. This remained so unless it could be demonstrated that there was some unique coastal value involved.

Take the buried sand, undoubtedly someone somewhere would for whatever reason want to have the California Coastal Commission preserve it from alteration due to development. During the early days we, The Commission Staff, would require those urging us to preserve the sand from significant impacts of potential development, to provide some convincing evidence that there was some unique coastal value or as we termed it “coastal resource” involved and not simply something to be used to halt a development proposal.

Similarly some developments were considered dependent upon the coast, such as ports and marinas and the like. If they were to exist anywhere they had to be constructed on the coast and so they were considered “coastal dependent.” Other developments did not have to be sited on the coast and could be accommodated inland. So, where a non-coastal dependent development would impact “coastal resources” it could be denied. On the other hand, in the case of a “coastal dependent development” one had to make a value judgements between “coastal dependent development” and “natural coastal resources.”

In most cases with coastal dependent development, at least in the Coastal Plan there was an assumption that, for a number of reasons, they would in most cases ultimately be built. So it was important that in these cases the analysis was not limited simply to the mitigation of “coastal resource” impacts but avoidance of impacts on other resources deemed significant as well.

It could be argued (and it was) during the development of the Coastal Plan that an extractive resource located in the Coastal Zone was more or less “coastal dependent” (the Coastal Commission went through severe contortions in their attempt to bring flexibility into the process, even to the point of adding something called “coastal related” into the analysis). “Coastal related,” was simply a development that while not impossible to be located outside of the Coastal Zone none the less was singnificantly benefited by a location in the Coastal Zone.

So with reference to the development of the ESHA, it could be argued that off-shore oil was “coastal dependent” (or related) because it had to be extracted in the Coastal Zone since that was where the oil and gas was located. So also were the necessary associated facilities, pipelines and the like. On the other hand, refineries did not have to be located in the Coastal Zone. In some cases it may have been less expensive if they were, but that was not a necessary determinant. Similarly with power plants, which although at the time there was a strong economic argument for siting them in the Coastal Zone, they were clearly not considered “coastal dependent.”

Because everyone was loath to flatly prohibit in the Coastal Plan any particular class of development in the Coastal Zone, and the recognition that large industrial facilities like power-plants and refineries have far greater direct and indirect impacts than say housing, the Coastal Plan eventually evolved from identifying “coastal resources” and fashioning appropriate policies to protect them to developing rules dealing directly with large industrial development.

The Coastal Commission Staff believed that in those cases the evaluation be more comprehensive; sort of like a coastal oriented EIR. It was in those policies in the Coastal Plan dealing with large industrial projects that Norbert discovered the first glimmerings of ESHA, a concept almost devoid of specifically “coastal resource” focused analytical content.