The California Coastal Commission vs. Its Critics

The "most formidable player" in California land regulation demands a documentarian's raw footage

Richard Oshen has spent the past four years making a documentary about the California Coastal Commission (CCC), a state agency too obscure to have gathered any previous documentarian's attention. It is, however, well known enough in the world of land-use policy to have been called, in a 2008 New York Times story, "the most formidable player of all" when it comes to land use decisions in California.

As Oshen learned, the CCC's powers extend far beyond what anyone would reasonably think of as either land use or the protection of California's coast. Coastal protection was the ostensible reason a four-year "Coastal Commission" was first invented for California after 1972's Proposition 20. The CCC was given permanent life by the California Coastal Act of 1976. Its current executive director, Peter Douglas, who is now serving his 29th year, helped agitate for and then draft the very statewide proposition that gave him his job.

Oshen, meanwhile, finds himself in a legal battle with the very government agency he's investigating. The CCC is trying to legally seize copies of much of the raw footage Oshen has shot, as well as a version of the finished product, titled Sins of Commission, prior to its official release.

Oshen's project started in October 2005 when he was called by a pair of friends, Dan Norris and Peggy Gilder, who were involved in a legal bind with the CCC. They wanted Oshen to film a CCC inspection of their property. Norris and Gilder insist that the inspection came about because nosy neighbors and a CCC agent trespassed on their posted private property, looking for complaints to trigger an inspection.

The inspection was accompanied by a court order that explicitly forbade Norris and Gilder from filming the proceedings—though at least one of the sheriff's deputies brought along by the CCC inspectors (who were also accompanied by a deputy attorney general) was filming, as can be seen in the footage Oshen did shoot. That footage appears in the rough cut of his documentary.

As Oshen told me, that October day on the 40-acre Norris/Gilder property on Old Topanga Canyon Road in the Santa Monica Mountains was the first time Oshen had even really heard of the CCC. Oshen was amazed to discover a government land use agency with the power, and the desire, to prevent citizens from making an independent record of what happened during an official inspection—thus putting that citizen at a decided disadvantage in any later court proceedings where their version of events diverges from that of a government official.

So for the past four years, Oshen and his cameras have collected stories and complaints about the CCC's overreach, officiousness, and harsh treatment of private land owners over issues that seem far removed from actual protection of California's coasts. (I'm one of the talking heads in the rough cut; I had written about the CCC before.) While lots of people had such complaints, it still didn't make Oshen's job as a documentarian easy. "Trying to get people to come forward [to complain about the CCC]," Oshen says, "is like saying, care to sample some plague? People were just afraid. They either had something pending before the CCC or are going to have something pending and more often than not, people said no."

Still, he found enough landowners, former CCC board members, and local politicians and firefighting officials with complaints about CCC methods and practices (including accusations that the CCC's reluctance to permit the clearing of brush in coastal areas it deems "environmentally sensitive" has contributed to highly destructive wildfires) to make an entertaining—and damning—documentary (not yet officially released), a rough cut of which I've seen.

But now the documentarian has become the subject: He too is feeling the legal boot of the CCC. His current legal problems arose from that same October day on the Norris/Gilder spread that launched his documentary.

In April 2007, feeling aggrieved by the notice of violation hanging over their property, which was due mostly to the crime of moving dirt off a poorly maintained old paved road so they could access a higher point on their land to do organic gardening, Norris and Gilder sued the CCC for effectively taking their private property without due compensation, among other complaints.

This taking allegation is something the CCC should be familiar with. It lost such a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. That case specifically dealt with the CCC demanding beach access easements in exchange for building permits, an act that Justice Antonin Scalia called "out and out...extortion" in his opinion.

However, as Oshen has found, and as lawyers and citizens who've grappled with the CCC have since agreed, outside of the very specific facts at issue in Nollan, the CCC hasn't let that Supreme Court loss cramp its style. It continues to try to make development permits (which can cover such things as putting up "no trespassing" signs or moving a clump of dirt) dependent on things like trail access easements or other demands—including, in a recent case being fought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a demand that permit seekers dedicate most of their land to active farming, forever.

As CCC Executive Director Douglas humbly told Oshen on-camera in the film (along with describing himself as a "radical pagan"), his unelected commission (whose members are appointed by the governor and leaders of the two state houses) doesn't have the power of eminent domain. All it has is the power to regulate, plan, and enforce restrictions on pretty much any action involving land within five miles of the coast, which means it doesn't really need the power of eminent domain at all. It can largely control the land anyway. This also makes the CCC a walking separation of powers nightmare. Indeed, in 2002 the state's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the CCC's structure on separation of powers grounds, though that decision was more about how the commission was appointed than how it exercised power. That decision was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.

The CCC, as part of the discovery process in its defense against the Gilder-Norris suit, asked Oshen for some of the footage he shot the day of the inspection. "We have provided them with material before," Oshen says. "They had asked for the material that pertained to the confrontation we photographed and we supplied that to them. It seems this time it's a lot deeper and my sense is a lot more nefarious."

In May the CCC hit Oshen with a demand for all footage involving Norris and Gilder, as well as a complete copy of the finished documentary. In addition, CCC chief Douglas has tried to legally rescind his agreement to appear in the movie; Oshen sees the footage demand as a combination of general harassment of a critic as well as an attempt to get an early taste of what the unreleased film says about them.

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  • Lex Luthor||

    That's why I bought all the seats on the San Andreas Fault Commission. I want this power.

  • ||

    Interesting trailer and clip from this film on (

  • Douglas Gray||

    "...a state agency too obscure to have gathered any previous documentarian's attention?"

    Not by a long shot if you own coastal property. All of us who live next to the beach in So. Cal. know about the CCC. Someone should introduce a bill for term limits on this Commission. The same draconian guy at the head for the last 29 years?

  • Geotpf||

    The CCC should have a P after it. They are a bunch of dictatorial fascists. And I'm a liberal Democrat! But they "protect the enviroment", so it's hard to get the public to support people who are attacking the people who "protect the enviroment".

  • ||

    Damn, when a liberal Democrat attacks a govt agency "protecting the environment", you know they've gone too far!

    I don't fear criticizing the bastards - I'll never own a piece of property that falls under their jurisdiction.

  • ||

    Peter Douglas responding to a cell call from me:
    "Over my dead body will any of you in Cambria have a cellphone tower put in"
    Although in the terms of the land donation at the fiscalini ranch, ALLOWING CELL TOWERS, the CCC squashed it. Found out later that his girlfriend is on the San Luis Obispo planning commission AND HER BROTHER is head of the local Sierra Club.
    I don't think so.

  • ||

    "Over my dead body will any of you in Cambria have a cellphone tower put in"

    What an unusual tombstone, but hey... honor the man's wish.

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    The CCC sounds like a microcosm version of the federal government... bullying, lawsuits, thugs in suits... yep, all strangely familiar.

  • ||

    Remember Don Scott? He was the landowner that was accidentally "killed" during a bogus raid on his Santa Monica mountians property. Seems some group wanted him to sell and he refused.

    "On October 2, 1992, a "task force" composed of L.A. County sheriff's deputies, DEA agents and U.S. Park Service officers executed a search warrant -- crossing Los Angeles County lines into Ventura County (without notifying Ventura County police) -- on California millionaire Don Scott's estate.

    The search warrant was based on information from an informant that marijuana was growing on Scott's 250 acre estate, a piece of land coveted by the government. DEA agents planned to use this to seize Scott's estate, which federal officials had earlier tried to buy to incorporate into its scenic corridor in the Santa Monica Mountains. "But Scott would never negotiate with government officials, whom he distrusted," according to the Los Angeles Times. "

  • Eric||

    Is there a "Hall of Shame/Top 10 Most Totalitarian State Agencies" to put light and heat on entities such as the CCC? You'd have to have separate state and federal Top 10s to keep the Feds from hogging all the top spots...

  • John Galt||

    I'm curious why these CCC bureaucrat scum aren't all dead? Their power is coercive and aggressive. It should be responded to with defensive force. Or retaliation. Don't they live in wood houses?

  • ZZMike||

    The CCC should be at the top of the list of commissions to be disbanded as part of our cost-cutting measure.

  • ||

    My mother has been embattled with the CCC for 14 years, they are constantly forcing her to pay fines and fees, get extremely expensive surveys, at a total cost of more than 50k in the last 5 years alone. She cannot continue fighting them over the right to build small sheds on her property, or clear brush, etc. They are bankrupting her. She lives in Topanga Canyon just within range of their grasp. Since she is already in 'violation' of their policies, they are threatening to seize her property. It breaks my heart to hear here cry her eyes out knowing she cannot afford to fight them. She must acquiesce to every demand they make, however unreasonable. I just want to find a way to help her. How can I help her fight them?

  • ||

    The Pacific Legal Foundation fights these CCC facists. Support them with your donations if you can. Contact them, maybe they can help.

  • ||

    FYI, this commission is not attempting to help the environment,

  • ec||

    Before you jump to criticize, remember that if it weren't for the CCC, California's coast would look like New Jersey. Yuck, I'll take their bullying over greedy developers any day.

  • Ray||

    There's always some loon trying to defend the evil govt agencies. wait until something happens to you, and then you'll feel differently. And remember, there's a balance. We dont want to look like New Jersy, but its not too much to ask to have our taxes going toward an agency that actually does what they say they will.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets..

  • nike shox||

    is good


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