With more funding headed its way and a stated emphasis on protection of natural resources, the California Coastal Commission appears to be tightening its control over development. Gov. Davis's proposed budget contains more money for enforcement and assisting with Local Coastal Plan implementation. Davis also replaced Coastal Commissioner Nancy Fleming, the pro-development mayor of Eureka, with Humboldt County Supervisor John Woolley, an appointment that pleased environmentalists. Commissioners named Sara Wan, a former Malibu mayor and a reliable vote for the environment, chairwoman for a second year. Developers continue to have a rough time with the panel. In January, the commission appealed a Mendocino County Superior Court order allowing a controversial Fort Bragg hotel to open. That same month, the commission blocked at least temporarily an 81-unit Santa Barbara condominium project. Also, the commission agreed to undertake the first-ever review of a county's Local Coastal Plan — the San Luis Obispo County LCP — because of development pressures. Except for a short period in 1996, when Republican Curt Pringle was Assembly speaker, the majority of the 12 coastal commissioners has always been Democratic. (The governor, the speaker and the Senate president pro tempore each make four appointments.) In 1996, "our job was to keep from driving the program off a cliff," recalled Peter Douglas, longtime Coastal Commission executive director. At that point, Douglas, who helped draft the Coastal Act initiative of 1972, was the target of an unsuccessful Republican ouster attempt. Now, he said, "we have a commission of smart, intelligent commissioners who are really engaged in this. … This is the finest collection of hearts and minds we've ever had on the commission." But development interests characterize the panel differently. Fred Gaines, a Woodland Hills attorney who has represented many coastal landowners, said the commission has become more difficult during the last year. "The Coastal Commission is as pro-environment and as anti-property owner as it has been in a long time. The Coastal Commission has never been kind to property owners, but there used to be more of a balance," Gaines said. The newest commission member, Woolley, is a 30-year resident of Manila, an unincorporated community of 1,000 on Humboldt Bay. As a local activist, he worked with the Coastal Conservancy to turn a former Manila lumber mill into a 100-acre park and community center. The first-term county supervisor said developers deserve a level of certainty, but commission decisions should consider public access to the coast. "We should not turn a blind eye toward development. We should help it along where it is appropriate," added Woolley, whom Davis appointed in December. Woolley is only the latest appointee with a community activist background. Among Davis's appointees last year was Christina Desser of the Migratory Species Project. These former activists often provide a friendly audience to people who question development during hearings, development proponents say. The Davis administration has proposed a modest increase in Coastal Commission funding to $16.1 million for the 2000-01 fiscal year. The governor's budget contains $900,000 for enforcement and compliance with the Coastal Act, including funds for researching prescriptive rights of public access. The budget also includes more money for Local Coastal Plan implementation. About one-third of jurisdictions along the coast still do not have an approved LCP, even though the plans were due 19 years ago. The Davis budget reverses the trend under the Wilson and Deukmejian administrations. "The governor has been very aware of the 16 years of cuts to this program and the devastating impact that has had," Douglas said. "We just got a geologist for the first time in 10 years, when so much of our work deals with geology." Recent commission decisions suggest it is as difficult as ever to receive development approval from the panel, which decides projects outside LCP boundaries and appeals of decisions within LCPs. For example, the commission appealed a trial court order favoring the developer of the North Cliff Hotel in Fort Bragg. City and state officials contend the 35-foot-tall structure blocks ocean views. The case offers proof of the commission's increasing interest in protecting visual resources. "The commission has taken a stand that views from public lands, and that includes state waters up to three miles from the coast, are an important resource," Douglas said. Oftentimes, this approach conflicts with gigantic homes proposed in remote areas, for which the commission gets more and more applications. The landowner wants the best view, which makes the structure more prominent. Commission staff and members, however, are skeptical of such plans, Douglas said. In the latest Santa Barbara coastal controversy, the commission voted 7-3 to delay a decision on Entrada de Santa Barbara, an 81-unit time-share condominium and retail project on State Street. The commission raised questions about traffic, the displacement of poor residents, loss of views and setbacks from riparian areas. The commission asked for more information and analysis — despite a staff recommendation of approval and outspoken project support from the Santa Barbara City Council. Even previously approved projects are struggling to advance. Last September, the commission dealt a setback to the Sterling Center project in Sand City. In 1994, the commission permitted a 136-room hotel, restaurant and conference center at the site. However, because the original developer never acted on the permit, an extension was sought. The commission declined to grant the extension because conditions had changed since 1994. Commissioners said that dune habitat is now seen as more valuable; the western snowy plover, which lives in the area, has been listed as endangered; the project's water supply is uncertain; and Sand City has acquired an adjacent parcel, which it wants to develop. Sterling Center marked the second defeat in less than a year for Sand City, which has unsuccessfully advocated coastal development inside its redevelopment project area for two decades. Last May, the commission postponed a decision on the 495-unit Monterey Bay Shores resort until the developer could prove that domestic water is available. The commission also demanded more studies on impacts to species, dune habitat and circulation. "The new Coastal Commission is one of the toughest Coastal Commissions that we have ever come across," said Kelly Morgan, city administrator in Sand City. Still, not all environmentalists are convinced the commission is doing enough to protect natural resources. Mark Massara, of the Sierra Club's California Coastal Program, pointed to the commission's approval in October of Pepperdine University's expansion. The Malibu school plans to build classrooms, 154 housing units, a conference center and 1,300 parking spaces on 50 acres above the main campus. "Look at the Pepperdine decision," Massara said. "This ‘green' commission approved destruction of the last best example of old-growth native coastal grass left in existence. For what? A 1,300-acre parking lot. Pepperdine could easily have built the project elsewhere." Clearly, the Coastal Commission is interested in improved planning efforts. Staff members recently initiated a periodic review of the San Luis Obispo County LCP, the first such review of a county LCP, said Steve Monowitz, a coastal planner in the commission's Santa Cruz office. Two years ago, when rejecting a giant Hearst Corp. hotel development, the commission urged San Luis Obispo County to amend its LCP to further restrict growth. "There are a lot of coastal development pressures and there are a lot of resources at stake. There's a concern about the adequacy of the LCP to address this, as evidenced by the number of appeals the commission is getting," Monowitz said. The agency also would like to provide more training for local planners because some cities and counties are implementing LCPs improperly, Douglas added. He believes mistakes are made because of local staff turnover and because most jurisdictions with an LCP have failed to update the LCP, leaving them with an obsolete plan. Douglas said the commission will probably sue the worst offenders. That crackdown is unlikely to win new friends. Landowner attorney Gaines said the commission should relinquish its role of "statewide planning commission" and simply set policies. Tom Mathews, Orange County planning and development services director, complained at a recent conference in Los Angeles that the commission has interpreted the Coastal Act too narrowly and has ignored local decision-makers. Alternatives to the commission's strict enforcement of regulations exist, such as Orange County's 37,000-acre Natural Communities Conservation Plan for 38 species, Mathews said. But Alex Hinds, Marin County community development director, recommended local planners tap Coastal Commission expertise as early as possible. For example, Marin County planners asked commission staff to help review a 31-unit affordable housing project in Point Reyes, even though the project is covered by Marin County's LCP. "My experience is that their intent is to enhance the experience, not just look over your shoulder," Hinds said. Contacts: Peter Douglas, Coastal Commission executive director, (415) 904-5200. Steve Monowitz, coastal planner, (831) 427-4868. Fred Gaines, Gaines & Stacey, (818) 593-6355. Mark Massara, Sierra Club California Coastal Program, (415) 977-5729. John Woolley, coastal commissioner, (707) 476-2393. Alex Hinds, Marin County community development director, (415) 499-6269.