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California coast panel in rough seas

From Oregon to Mexico, the California coast rolls along --past Big Sur pines and crowded southern beaches -- the longest coastline of any state except Alaska and, for nearly a decade, perhaps the nation's most fiercely protected.

Today, however, the guardian of all that scenery, the California Coastal Commission, is charting rough political waters here -- and could find itself on the rocks if a few bureaucracy-scalping state legislators have their way.

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Set up by voters in 1972 as the overseer of the drafting of 68 county and city coastal plans aimed at balancing environmental preservation and private development up and down the coast, the commission often has found itself in hot water with developers, coastal landowners and homeowners, and a score of local and state officials over the past several years.

But this year, as the commission runs into two state-mandated deadlines, many observers here predict that the public's apparent "get government off our backs" mood --tracked diligently by election-alert politicians -- will most certainly mean changes in the commission's broad mandate.

Since January, 56 bills regarding the coastal commission have been filed in the Legislature, ranging from outright abolition of the body to modifications of its administrative procedures, policies, and authority. Republicans have targeted the commission for oblivion under the alternative minority budget they unveiled recently. And even Assembly Speaker Willie Brown Jr. (D), a liberal who adamantly rules out extinction for the commission, does allow that "there might be some modifications."

Charged with protecting the coast and guaranteeing public access to its stunning shoreline, the coastal commission --with the aid of six regional bodies whose terms expire this July -- preempted all control for issuing building permits along the coast.

Local authority is returned only as cities and counties come up with carefully reviewed land-use plans and implementation policies for their coastal lands. And since only one-third of those local governments are expected to have completed their plans by the July deadline mandated by the state, legislators must decide whether permit authority should remain with the state commission or be returned to local venues, regardless of whether a coastal plan has been developed.

Much of the hostility incurred by the commission is due to the fact that, under the state Coastal Act, which renewed the regulatory body in 1976, commissioners can require would-be developers to make 25 percent of a proposed housing project available for low- and moderate-income families as a condition for obtaining a building permit. As a condition for expanding a private home, or building a new residence along the coast, the commission has the authority to require applicants to create public access walkways to private beach fronts.

"The coastal commission has gone beserk," growls an aide to state Sen. Jim Ellis (R) of San Diego, who has introduced one of the bills proposing the abolition of the commission. "It's moved so far from protecting the coast. It's gone to becoming a social engineering program."

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Still, few bystanders -- including many commission foes --reason, voters appear to remain strongly committed to coastal protection. Although only 50 percent of the 1,039 people interviewed in a Field Research Corporation poll taken last year had heard of the California Coastal Commission, 80 percent of those interviewed believed that it was "very" or "extremely" important for the commission to guarantee public access to beaches, protest scenic views, and regulate coastal development.

In defending the commission's regulatory role vis-a-vis growing public restlessness with super-bureaucracies, executive director Michael Fisher explains: "There's no question the public mood is shifting. But that doesn't mean a lack of commitment to environmental responsibility. It's a well-founded reaction against unnecessary overregulations. And I don't think the commission is a good example of too much regulation."

Unlike other regulatory agencies that deal mainly with large corporations and so avoid the public's wrath, he continues, "The majority of our cases deal with John Q. Citizen. We are very visible . . . so people tend to think of us as overregulators."

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