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Commentary: Coastal Commission must return to its original intent

Issue Date: March 21, 2018
By Taylor Roschen
Taylor Roschen
Sheep graze near the Marin County coast. Agricultural operations within the zone regulated by the California Coastal Commission can face stringent regulatory requirements to carry out routine activities, even though the law under which the commission was formed considers agriculture an integral feature of the coastal zone.

"Is this what was intended when this law passed?" It's a question staff people at regulatory agencies often fail to ask themselves before starting to impose new rules and restrictions on citizens. It's also a question California farmers and ranchers are tired of asking themselves, as they struggle with those rules and restrictions.

The state Legislature passes hundreds of new laws every year, and each one reflects an agreement made. The Constitution requires that "legislative intent" be the guiding principle in implementing the law. It serves as a reminder that the body of law should stand firmly rooted, and not be subject to a regulator's political whims.

Too often, however, legislative intentions are forgotten. Worse yet, those intentions can be obstructed in a way that undermines agriculture and rural areas. This malady is not unique to California, but does seem to disproportionately afflict many of our regulatory agencies.

We have seen this situation recently, in the California Water Commission staff recommendations for water storage projects. Despite overwhelming voter support and explicit guidance in the Proposition 1 water bond for storage, staff felt its own ideology was more important, and tried to use its recommendations on water projects to scuttle the ship before it even left port.

Another ship that has long been out to sea—but far off the course of legislative intent—is the California Coastal Act. Coastal agriculture was, and still is, an integral part of the law. If this surprises you, you're not alone. From what we can tell, this part of the law would surprise some coastal commissioners and staff, as well. To see evidence of this, simply ask a coastal farmer, rancher or dairy operator how they feel about the commission's commitment to coastal agriculture. You will not be greeted with smiles.

Established by voter initiative in 1972 and reauthorized in 1976, the commission's mandate is to protect California's iconic coastline and the businesses that depend upon it, including agriculture. In the face of the current, heavily regulatory climate, we should reflect on the intent of the Coastal Act:

"The people of the State of California hereby find and declare that the California coastal zone is a distinct and valuable natural resource belonging to all people and existing as a delicately balanced ecosystem."

Thus, the commission requires any proposed "development" in the coastal zone—which runs roughly 1,100 miles down the coast and can reach as much as five miles inland—to be approved through the coastal development permit process.

But the singular term "permit" becomes a bit misleading. In fact, the process requires the permit to be supported by soil and hydrology studies, drainage or erosion control plans, California Environmental Quality Act reviews, engineering studies and other federal, state and local requirements, just to name a few.

These requirements may make sense for the development of a large home or commercial project on the coastline, but it doesn't for posting "No Trespassing" signs, replacing damaged fence lines or stabilizing an eroded streambed. It doesn't make sense for crop rotation or planting an experimental plot on a small portion of pasture. Unfortunately, without acknowledging the legislative intent, the commission may require these minor actions to conform to the restrictions of a costly, time-consuming permit.

All too often, farmers find themselves on the losing side of this equation as commission staff deem these routine agricultural activities "development," contrary to the law's intent, and subject farmers to coastal development permits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Although some in the agricultural community have been successful in seeking lower-scrutiny approvals or exemptions, it often takes a knock-down, drag-out fight to convince commission staff of their eligibility—all the while withstanding pressure from environmental activists.

Unfortunately, when the battle becomes too tough or too expensive, farmers and ranchers have little choice but to not perform necessary maintenance, imperiling their land and that of their neighbors. In turn, as farming becomes less profitable, the window may be opened for land speculation that will result in the actual "development" the commission was created to review.

We should also advocate for the Coastal Commission, through its staff, to seek ways to harmonize other protected coastal values with agriculture, which, after all, is not only the original land use in the coastal zone, but one that the Coastal Act was established to protect.

Farm Bureau remains committed to representing the thousands of coastal agriculturalists who are, in so many ways, the best-placed stewards of this "distinct and valuable natural resource."

If you have a story to share, contact me at

(Taylor Roschen is a policy advocate for the California Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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