This is another of my recent posts containing the column I wrote in 1987 for California WaterfrontAge a magazine published by the California State Coastal Conservancy during my time as the Conservancy’s first Executive Director. It is also the last one since I soon left after 12 years of actively pursuing the protection of California’s magnificent coastal resources. The Coastal Conservancy was a new type of governmental agency at the time, more directed environmental restoration than the acquisition of parks and open space. Since it’s creation, the Conservancy, has completed almost 2,500 projects along the California coastline and San Francisco Bay, protected over 400,000 acres of coastal land and restored over 35,000 acres of coastal habitat, built about 215 miles of new trail and spent over 1.4 billion dollars on projects. It works in partnership with other public agencies, nonprofit organizations and private landowners.
Twelve Years on the Coast, 1973–1985…
THIS FINAL Joe’s Corner marks my departure from the State Coastal Conservancy after eight years as its executive officer. It seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on my twelve years in coastal management — a period which stretches from the early, controversial days of the California Coastal Commission to a calmer era which has seen the Conservancy establish itself and mature to address new and important issues.
I entered the field in 1973 as chief counsel to the newly created California Coastal Commission. With the mandate of the new voter-approved Proposition 20, we faced the urgent task of preventing development that threatened to destroy the resources of the magnificent California coast of which we Californians were so proud. The Commission’s regulatory powers granted to them by a vote of the people of California enabled them, at least temporarily, to accomplish this task, but regulation also led to frustration.
The Commission’s power was essentially a negative one; it could only review those projects that apply for permits. It could not build public accessways to the water, restore degraded marshes, eliminate small lots on previously subdivided property, or achieve any of the other important goals that required positive action.
When The Commission began work on developing the Coastal Plan, it attempted to remedy the inadequacies inherent in temporary regulation. Eventually, they decided on a three-part approach:
First, deal with the immediate and cumulative impacts of proposed development through regulation and the adoption of local coastal protection land use plans prepared and administered by local governments and approved by the Commission as consistent with the Commission approved Local Coastal Plan;
Second, acquire those properties containing important ecological or recreational value by appropriate State and local government agencies and qualified non-profit entities funded through a voter-approved Bond Act and;
Third, create an entirely new agency equipped to take the positive actions to restore and preserve coastal resources, guide development along the coast and provide public access and recreational opportunities for all that the existing regulatory and other agencies were unable to accomplish.
Assigned to write the Governmental Powers and Funding element of the Coastal Plan, in addition to developing the management structures of the entities to carry out the Coastal Plan, I designed a new agency to be called the State Coastal Conservancy. I developed the concept of this new type of governmental entity based on the lessons learned from observing the successes and failures of redevelopment programs and innovative private non-profit land trusts like the one in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Ultimately the three prongs of the plan were incorporated into three separate pieces of legislation that were passed by the California legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in1976. The three laws together are referred to as the California Coastal Program
The coastal bills touched every interest group in Sacramento, and the lobbying was intense. I took a legislative staff job in 1975 in order to help draft and guide the bills through their rough but exciting passage.
The first prong of the solution, local regulation, has been a slow and sometimes frustrating process, but years of interim state regulation have fundamentally changed developers’ attitudes and have improved the quality of projects they propose on the coast.
The second prong, public acquisition, has been extremely successful: as of this time (1987), 27,000 acres of coastal lands have been bought, providing twenty-two new miles of public coastline. In Sonoma County, for example, most of the coast is now in public ownership where almost none existed before 1972.
The Sonoma Coast.
(Note: Today (2018) approximately one-third of California’s over 1500 miles of shoreline is in park or other environmentally protected lands.)
Recently (2015) I visited a combined project of the State Coastal Conservancy and the California Parks Department that preserved a long stretch of the Mendocino County Coastline.
The third prong, the State Coastal Conservancy, is the subject of the remainder of this column.
The Conservancy has a dual mission: to resolve conflicts that surface in the regulatory process and to take innovative steps to solve problems regulation cannot address. In the early years of the agency, these two missions often dovetailed; we were called upon to solve crises which had stymied the planners and regulators. At Oceanside, for example, the city had proposed a wall of shoreline condominiums, unacceptable to the Coastal Commission because it would have blocked off the beach. Through a process of citizen-attended design workshops, the Conservancy was able to help negotiate a plan acceptable to all parties.
In these conflict situations, the Conservancy has tried to break the impasse by bringing an economic viewpoint to bear on the issues. Keeping the hard numbers in mind, the Conservancy has proposed solutions that meet not only the regulatory goals of the State but the economic interests of the local government and the developer.
Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara California, a Conservancy Urban Waterfront, Public Acess and conflict resolution project.
Our access program was also designed to solve a crisis of sorts — the inability of regulatory authority to open up the beach. We decided not to wait for local coastal planning to finish its tortuous course, but instead to push forward with urgently needed accessways, simple paths or stairways that would allow people to reach the water. In eight years we paid for over 110 accessways that opened up significant portions of the beach in many popular areas like Malibu and Big Sur.
Beach Access in Malibu.
As the agency has matured, our work evolved from alleviating piecemeal crises to developing long-range and comprehensive solutions. With the access program, now that we have built the most immediately needed accessways, we are looking only at projects that fit into a comprehensive scheme for a given area. In particular, over the past few years, a great deal of our work has been in helping develop integrated programs to revitalize the waterfronts of small cities. Much of the recreational potential of the coast lies in small cities like Oceanside or Morro Bay, and we are designing overall approaches to developing that potential in an economically feasible way. Accessways often form only one component in a strategy that might include pier restoration, park development, and commercial expansion.
Restoration of the Magnificent Santa Monica Pier was a Conservancy Urban Waterfront Restoration Project.
Similarly, in our wetlands program, we are not only funding the restoration of degraded marshes but we are beginning to address the larger problem of managing the watersheds that the marshes depend upon. No matter how well a wetland is restored or how securely it is protected by regulation against filling or dredging, it will not survive if a disturbed watershed dumps silt on top of it. In Tomales Bay, Los Penasquitos Lagoon, and other areas, we are using siltation devices and selected acquisitions to help control those human disturbances to the watershed which threaten the wetlands below.
Los Penasquitos Lagoon.
I believe the Conservancy’s success will continue to depend even more on how well it can do this kind of problem-solving. Up and down the California coast, wetlands have been saved from encroaching development, access has been improved, and other pressing problems have been addressed. Now it becomes all the more important to preserve and consolidate those gains for future generations.
Arcata Marsh, a State Coastal Conservancy Assisted Wetlands Restoration Project.
Southern California’s wetlands will not survive without management of their watersheds; existing beaches will be overtaxed if new recreational facilities are not developed.
(Note: In 1976 when the Conservancy was created there few if any, wetland restoration projects under weigh and surprising little support for their rehabilitation.The Conservancy took the lead in wetland rehabilitation and that attitude began to change. In 1997, the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project, a coalition of several governmental agencies, of which the Conservancy plays a significant role was created to coordinate wetland restitution and rehabilitation along the Southern California coast.)
Bolsa Chica Wetlands Restoration.
The Conservancy has begun the arduous task of tackling these broader and more complex issues of land management. Over the last decade, the only new state environmental agencies created were the Santa Monica Mountains and Tahoe Conservancies, both modeled after the Coastal Conservancy. In an age of hostility toward bigger government, the success which the Conservancy has had and the support it continues to receive are welcome and promising signs for the future.
Point Cabrillo Light Station, State Park and Restored Light Keepers’ Cottages.
Five Years on the Bay
IN THIS ISSUE commemorating the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, I will offer a few words on how the Conservancy has applied its multiple techniques and programs to San Francisco Bay, which came under the agency’s jurisdiction in 1981. The Bayshore, like the coast, has a regulatory agency – the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission-with the authority to limit harmful development but without the authority to build accessways or restore marshes. The Conservancy’s efforts complement those of the Bay Commission; to make the most of this relationship, the Conservancy has tried to use the comprehensive approaches which evolved out of our coastal experience.
San Francisco Bay is essentially an urban body of water. The Conservancy has therefore aimed its bay programs at urban needs. The ultimate goal of the access program is to create a shoreline trail which connects all the major cities of the bay. Between Oakland and San Jose, the trail is now almost complete. The Conservancy has funded walking trails or bicycle paths at Lake Merritt, Vallejo, Hayward, Benicia, and Palo Alto, and has funded nearly twenty other access projects. In all, the agency is responsible for a total of fifteen miles of new shoreline trails.
That Inauspicious Beginning has Grown to This Today (2018).
One of the more innovative components of the Conservancy’s access program is its barrier-free work. Five projects from Coyote Point to Benicia will change facilities to make them accessible to handicapped persons; this “retrofitting” includes installing ramps, making curb cuts, and remodeling restrooms.Hopefully, these projects will serve as models for new recreational facilities on the bay.
Recreation therapist Bonnie Lewkowicz author of trail guides for the disabled and Brett Wilkison from the Coastal Conservancy examining Brisbane Marina to improve wheelchair accessibility.
Some of the Conservancy’s other wide-ranging recreational projects include a fishing pier in Napa County and a shoreline park in Berkeley planted with indigenous species. Most recently the Conservancy has funded the purchase of an extensive area along the Carquinez shoreline surrounding Port Costa. This will thoroughly preserve one of the few remaining open spaces and recreational areas in the East Bay.
The challenge which our wetlands program faces in the bay is to create and maintain habitat in urban areas. Potentially one of the most important mechanisms for this is the Conservancy’s new mitigation bank program, which works in conjunction with regulatory agencies.
The above map shows the extent of Conservancy Wetland Projects Today (2018) in Southern San Francisco Bay.
Developers are sometimes allowed to fill or otherwise damage wetland habitat if they provide for replacement habitat somewhere off the project site. However, compliance with these “offsite” requirements has been disappointing, so the mitigation bank program was designed to make developers comply more effectively. The idea is that the Conservancy will restore certain historic wetlands on the bay and “deposit” their habitat value in a land bank; then developers with offsite requirements will have the option of simply reimbursing the agency for some portion of the habitat value. In this way, habitat replacement is achieved before the developer destroys any wetland, and the Conservancy can reuse the developer’s funds for additional wetland restoration. The Conservancy already has an agreement with the Bay Commission to carry out the program, and a pilot mitigation site on San Pablo Bay may be restored later this year.
Another way to help restore wetlands in urban areas is to use treated wastewater. On the bayfront in Hayward, the Conservancy is cooperating in a project that will use effluent to create 160 acres of freshwater and brackish marsh. The project is similar to the Arcata marsh restoration featured in the second issue of California WaterfrontAge.
Recently the Conservancy has focused on creeks which feed the bay but are threatened by encroaching urban development.
On Rush Creek, in Marin County, the Conservancy is developing an integrated strategy to purchase and restore habitat and to address the upland areas which could threaten that habitat. Projects such as this rely on a whole arsenal of techniques employed in a comprehensive approach.
In the years ahead, the Conservancy will continue to help build on the regulatory and planning successes of the Bay Commission. The Conservancy is in an ideal position to play an important role in restoring diked baylands, expanding recreational opportunities, and meeting the other crucial challenges of the future.