Another California Coastal Commission Horror Story

This is a guest post from Gregg Stevens.  His story resonates with me in particular because he is in the same business as I am, running campgrounds.  The story begins with the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  

I used to think there wasn’t much a hole in the ground could do. The hole could get bigger, or it could get smaller. And that’s about it. But I’ve recently learned that a hole in the ground can not only suck an enormous amount of money, time and energy from a fellow, it can drive him to the edge of madness as well.

I run a small campground on a river in northern California, and one winter day a big old fir tree blew over into the water. It’s fairly common for trees to fall here on the heavily wooded, storm-battered Mendocino Coast. But this particular tree was a bit different than most. For it fell under the benevolent gaze of the California Coastal Commission.

The Coastal Commission came into being in the 1970’s as part of the Coastal Act, a law enacted primarily to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay. In retrospect, stopping this project was probably a good thing. For they have since discovered that building a nuke plant on Bodega Head may have been unwise, what with the San Andreas fault running directly beneath it and all.

But like all commissions, boards, bureaus and departments in California, the Coastal Commission soon grew like some weird bureaucratic bacteria culture into something far beyond their original charter. So instead of only reviewing construction projects west of Highway1, they now rule vast stretches of the state reaching miles inland. They are forever overruling the plans of counties and cities, and they have become a real thorn in the side of homeowners throughout the state. And right at the bull’s-eye of their target group are commercial property owners.

As part of my job I try to stay abreast of the continuous changes in the countless pages of codes and regulations that affect our business. So I knew that on this river, once a tree hits the water it is considered a salmon habitat. And if you want to remove it, it must be extensively permitted first. Permitted California-style.

If I just left the tree where it lay, it would have eventually torn out of the bank and floated downstream, where it would have hung up and kept the boats from getting in and out. I would have to buck it up and get it out of there before things got worse. So I armed myself with a permit application from the California Coastal Commission, and marched blindly and boldly into the arena.

I have filed many, many permits over the years, so I have it down to an art. All the various federal, state and county agencies laying claim to the river were advised of the project and their approval requested. Two or three dozen adjacent landowners were notified and their input encouraged. Photos of the project site were compiled, maps and diagrams put together and detailed description of the work involved and materials used were written. Then multiple copies of this stuff was assembled and shipped off to Eureka. After a few follow-up e-mails and phone calls, I was given a date for a pre-approval inspection. The whole process went rather smoothly, and I congratulated myself on having my act together.

When the Commission people showed up they immediately determined that there was in fact a tree lying in the river. Then they surprised me by saying that I didn’t need a permit to remove it. Apparently there was a clause in the law that stated the tree didn’t actually become a salmon habitat for 60 days. So I could do what I wanted with it.

I did not know of this clause. Nor, I suspect, did the salmon. But it was good news to me. I would have the thing gone in a day. The tree was not a problem after all. But the hole in the ground the tree had left behind was a different matter entirely.

Because of its proximity to the river, I was told I would definitely have to get approval from the Commission to fill the hole. I did not really think much about the hole in my planning, mostly because it wouldn’t be a hole anymore once I put dirt back into it. But I was in luck. For a rare alignment of the bureaucratic planets was coming up soon. And my application could hit the regional pre-approval board before skipping over to Sacramento in time for the pre-meeting meeting of the secondary board, who would then submit it to The Commission itself. At that time, the members of The Commission might deign to allow it to be so. I seem to remember another step or two in there somewhere, but after an hour or so of this I was thinking about what to have for dinner.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. I had filed an emergency permit application, thinking this would be the way to get things rolling the quickest. But I was told that The Commission would only approve an emergency permit if there were an immediate threat of loss of life. So I would have to submit a standard application. And if I didn’t submit it in time I would have to wait for the next cycle. I thought for a moment of the poor slob who might actually have to submit to the California Coastal Commission an application for a permit to prevent an immediate loss of life. Then I went back to work.

All the various federal, state and county agencies laying claim to the river were advised of the project and their approval requested. Two or three dozen adjacent landowners were notified and their input encouraged. Photos of the project site were compiled, maps and diagrams put together and detailed description of the work involved and materials used were written. Then multiple copies of this stuff was assembled and shipped off to Eureka. I had been down this road before.

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer. We were asked to pay the permit fee up front, so I sent them a check for $2500. I received several e-mails requesting more information, but aside from that, nothing. I still had a hole in one of our campsites, and the campground was getting full. So I dumped enough dirt in the hole to cover up the exposed utility lines, put a safety fence around it and started renting the site out again. It was not an especially popular spot, but I just used it for short periods of time since I expected to jump back in there and finish it any day. But this was not to be.

Summer turned to fall. I had been notified that we needed another study or two for this project, but by now it made my brain hurt to even think about that hole. After months of neglect the hole was trying to fill itself by collapsing it’s banks, so the campsite was completely unusable. And I had basically given up on getting the permit before the next rains hit.

Then one winter day, more than a year after I had filed the application, I received a certified letter from the Coastal Commission. They had been surreptitiously monitoring the work we had done, or not done, at the site. And we were looking at a fine of $30,000 and up to $15,000 per day for doing the work. Or not doing the work. The letter was a bit vague on that part. But one thing was clear. Whatever it was we had or hadn’t done was wrong and thoroughly illegal. And we were to be punished severely for it.

I considered the implications of this letter. The California Coastal Commission is a large, state-wide agency that was probably at that moment dealing with a thousand permit applications and projects, not to mention hundreds of law suits from property owners. Yet they had put forth the time and effort to send their personnel on a clandestine intelligence-gathering mission to our business after we had gone home for the night. To look at that hole. And they had done so several times. Things were getting mighty strange.

I will pause here for a moment to remind the reader that I am talking about a hole in the ground. It was 10 feet across and 6 feet deep. There was not a Giza Plateau level of engineering skill required here. You dump some dirt and rock into the hole. Then you grade and compact it. Then you go eat lunch.

I decided to read the Coastal Act and all the additions and amendments to it again. I was sure that somewhere in that lengthy document was a way to get this permit pushed through. And I found that the regulation on this type of work was surprisingly clear. It didn’t need a permit at all. We were merely repairing damage, not expanding the park. I remember bringing up this very argument when I met with the Commission people over a year ago. And they basically laughed it off.

Because it really didn’t matter what the Coastal Act said. In California, codes and regulations are generally considered as minimum requirements by whatever agency is looking at them. So the rules can be modified and reinterpreted at their whim. I have lost track of the unrequired work we have been required to do.

Their main concern was that some of the fill would find it’s way to the river. So they were most unhappy that I had put some rock into the hole before they said I could, even though it was the same rock that had come out of it. And if this was their worry, making me leave the hole open through two rainy seasons did not seem like a good way to deal with it anyways. But apparently this was the issue that was holding things up, so I would give them erosion control on an epic scale.

I wrote up an Erosion Control Master Plan, which involved multiple layers of compacted state-approved road base in the hole itself, topped with organic topsoil. Then, the entire bank from the hole to the high water line would be covered in a specially made natural-fiber erosion blanket for 30 feet along the river. Over this would go several long organic fabric tubes run parallel to the river to redirect any raindrops that may be so bold as to land on the cloth. This would all be painted over with a blend of grass and wildflower seeds and organic nutrients. I had to special order most of this stuff and have it shipped, so it cost about $1500. I sent this plan off to the Coastal Commission. And then I waited.

Winter turned to spring.  Then I got another letter from the Coastal Commission. It seemed that they could not give us a permit for this job, since the work did not require a permit. So they gave us a waiver instead. We still had to pay the permit fee, and comply with my Erosion Control Master Plan. But they would drop the fines. And they would waive the requirement to get a permit for the job, which wasn’t required to begin with.

Permit, waiver, whatever. I finally got to fill that damn hole, and I did so immediately.

It took a couple hours to do the work. It took 16 months, $4,000 and countless office hours to get a permit we didn’t need and never received.

The campsite seems a bit unnatural now, with all that weird looking stuff there. So no one wants to rent it. But I like to imagine that hundreds of years from now archeologists might discover this perfectly preserved little section of riverbank, standing tall and proud amidst the rubble. And they might ponder its significance.

So if you are trying to run a business in some other state and you often feel overburdened with unnecessary regulations, just remember this. It could be a lot worse. You could be trying to put some dirt in a hole in California.


  1. Skeena73:

    Is it any wonder why pple go balistic and start shooting? There's no cure for stupid.

  2. Stan:

    So do they just assume people's natural instinct regarding holes, is to fill them in with the most toxic, harmful stuff they can find? I don't know what we would do without them.

  3. PurpAv:

    Exposed power lines in the hole == lethal electrical threat.

    In other states the local fire chief incredible power to order resolution of lethal electrical threats expedited immediately. I've used this trick in the past when a main breaker failed on a structure and I needed to pull the meter to do the repairs safely but the power company was dragging its feet. One call to the FD whining about electrical arcing, burnt shit, etc and I had a NYSEG service truck onsite within an hour leaving me a fresh seal to put back on the meter when I was done.

    Sometimes you have to attack intransigence from a little different angle than normal.

  4. FelineCannonball:

    I don't think I would have asked. But I'm guessing he's gotten burned before. That's quite a run-down marina complex and I'm guessing someone's complaining about runoff and diesel films on the Noyo river all the time.

  5. HT_to_Ace:

    I know the feeling. Years' back, I worked on a project on the central coast to realign Highway One. The original construction (pre-Commission) starved the local beach of its sand supply and it was quickly denuded. That particular beach was a popular vacation destination circa 1900 and was now scoured rock. Realignment would reconnect the sand supply from the coastal bluffs and re-establish the beach. Of course, the Coastal Commission refused any change to existing conditions, not even to correct that original man-made impact. To this day, any sand falling on the highway has to be hauled away for disposal.
    As you said, that's just one of many situations where the Coastal Commission exhibits profound lack of common sense. And California has a long coastline.

  6. whitehall:

    The worst enemy of a bureaucrat is another bureaucrat. Always remember that when dealing with one.

  7. Eris Guy:

    Someone must be the bad example. I say, “Go! CA Go!” The people dreamed of their green state, wanted their state green, voted in politicians who make their state green. This is exactly what democracy is for. I will not question the will of the people.

  8. Life's Lesson #1:

    Never ever f... with a bureaucrat as the bureaucrat always gets the last f...

  9. Anon:

    I felt like I was reading "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy"

  10. Mark J:

    Pretty bad, no doubt, but by no means unique. I share with you this regulatory enforcement effort by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources against "unauthorized activity" consisting of the the "Construction and maintenance of two

    wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond."

    The property owner's reply, and his identification and defense of the real culprits, is classic.

  11. Bknewyork:

    Clearly these people are just looking for a bribe. It would be cool to do a sting operation and get them all fired.

  12. Googie Bergdorff:

    So it seems that the lesson is that you should have covered the hole and made firewood out of the tree without involving bureaucrats at all.

  13. MTF:

    If a proposition could be passed requiring the state to eliminate the oldest 5% of its regulatory burden every year, along with the bureaucrats those regulations are designed to employ, would the world be a better place? If the regulations are "good" the state legislature could reauthorize, and the stuff would all be new again, and good for another twenty years. But an automatic sunset of every rule may be the only way to end this crap.

  14. skhpcola:

    Dumbass LarryGrosslyIgnorant would think that this is justified bureaucratic oversight of a scary businessman trying to fleece the public out of earned welfare dollars. Or something.

  15. me too:

    That's a dam good idea

  16. Paul:

    If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody tells a bureaucrat, did the tree actually fall? And if a hole gets filled, and nobody tells a bureaucrat, did the hole actually exist?

  17. Ben Franklin:

    Your mistake was telling anyone.

    BTW, if you ever went to trial for something like this and I was on the jury you would have nothing to worry about. If decent people just practiced jury nullification for any law they did not agree with we would all be better off.

  18. Eric Pobirs:

    To quote George Carlin, "If the cop didn't see it, I didn't do it." Never bring anything to the attention of a bureaucracy if it can be quickly and quietly resolved by your own self.

    I recall reading once that a statistician found an significant number of missing persons had a history of burglary offenses. This lead to the theory that these people tended to break into the wrong house and ended up buried in the backyard rather than the resident attempt to justify to authorities his actions in defending his home. After all, how many burglars leave behind a list of locations to check if they fail to come home within a set period?

  19. Brian B:

    I'm a logger in CA. A few years back it was made a requirement that every logging plan be reviewed by the State Water Resources Control Board. On one particular plan an old skid trail had never been removed from a watercourse and it had cut a new course through a very steep bank of decomposed granite creating a never ending slide from the resultant 50 foot high bank.
    Ten minutes on a bulldozer would have returned the water to its natural course and ended the never ending erosion but the college aged moron sent out be SWRCB demanded we leave it the way it was. I logged it and eventually traded the property to the forest service where that bank sits there eroding unnecessarily into the watercourse and will continue to do so until there is no more mountainside to erode.

  20. Sam Adams:

    I own a small business in Massachusetts. I purchased a dilapidated building with the intent of rehabbing it and moving my business into it. I needed a new septic system and I needed to re-pave the parking lot. After one year and thousands of dollars in consulting fees, I have been forced to build a bridge to nowhere at a cost of $20,000 and to provide bioremediation efforts at a cost of $22,000 to repave the parking lot. Welcome to the Soviet America. I do have to say that I'm glad that I'm not in California, but I can clearly see where we are headed.

  21. bo ure:

    Should'a went, "Help, help, a tree tipped in the water!!!!"

  22. Rich Knudsen:

    Sadly, you couldn't put those Commisioners in the hole before you filled it up.

  23. Rich Knudsen:

    And yet you complied with the Commissars and maintain your home in this obviously overegulated state.Ever hear of the term"Masochist". Live it, learn it, love it.Or MOVE.

  24. Rich Knudsen:

    Oh Great, now I have to move the S.O.B again!

  25. Rich Knudsen:

    The fact we are suffering 8 years of Stupid in the WH is reason enough to know that won't happen.The Jury pool is always of the lowest common denominator of voters who can't find an excuse to Recuse themselves so they go in with a chip on their shoulders.In other words,they choose poorly so we can suffer too because they had to serve.
    I am Not cynic but I play one on the interwebs.

  26. Rich Knudsen:

    Put down the bong and step away from the Bar, Dreamer.

  27. Rich Knudsen:

    Whats the old saying; No good deed goes unpunished".
    In Cali its a state of being.

  28. Rich Knudsen:

    They don't need bribes,they have CALPERS.

  29. Rich Knudsen:

    So how long did the Beavers serve in Pet Jail?

  30. Rich Knudsen:

    Rope,Tree,Some assembly required .

  31. Rich Knudsen:

    The Alligator will eat You First.

  32. Rich Knudsen:

    Common sense does not apply to anything that happens in California.

  33. Elliott:

    I read this all to the tune of Alice's Restaurant

  34. Aglockintime:

    Read "Eco-Fascists: How Radical Conservationists are Destroying Our National Heritage" by Elisabeth Nickson. In it she tells her story of trying to improve her property and the nightmare of bureaucrats, with a poolitical agenda try to sabotage it. She also travels aroundthe country and shows how this is being done in places as diverse as Crescent City, Ca. las Curces, NM, the Adirondacks, Wash. Oregon, Colorado Springs. et al..

  35. creeper:

    Great post. I don't know how you maintain your sense of humor.

    Bookmarked your blog. Thanks go to Doug Powers' Larwyn's Lynx.

  36. Bill:

    Anything the Coastal Commission touches gets worse. To get a real flavor of dealing with California bureaucrats see:

    And I thought I had a good story about the San Jose electrical inspector who demanded that we replace a group of wet location fixtures with ones rated for damp locations (a lower grade of fixture, for those who haven't had to deal with the vagaries of the NEC and California bureaucrats.

  37. Matthew Slyfield:

    I recall seeing a story about a police lineup for an armed robbery recently where the brilliant criminal while in the line up and asked to repeat the phrase reported by the witness helpfully interjected, "But that isn't what I said."

  38. Matthew Slyfield:

    If you were smart, you would have waited until your neighbors went on vacation and then buried him in their yard.

  39. Richard:

    Vogon clerk: "Lunchtime. I think I'll have the soup."

  40. spin43:

    We are not free people.

  41. Photogirl4u:

    Well this proves one thing.... the motto seems to be... analyze till you paralyze.. the way of Government big and small.

  42. hazen:

    My story is not nearly as epic, but I volunteered to be in charge of getting a concession stand built for a local park that had a ball field used 2 months a year. The village owned the park and therefore desired that I do everything in accordance with the wishes of our county health department. By the time it was done, 2 years later we spent nearly double the original budget, had a kitchen area worthy of any restaraurant and a septic system to service our bathrooms that would have handled a small stadium. During the same period I watched as a couple of neighboring villages built structures serving the same purpose as ours at a fraction of the time and cost because they just went out and did it, the way we should have. One big difference is our bureaucrats are too lazy to leave the office if they don't have to, so if you don't stir up any trouble or upset the wrong person you can pretty much get away with whatever you want. Lesson learned.

  43. perlhaqr:

    So it's like the old saying for wolves: Saw, Shovel, and Shut up?

  44. mike:

    i would of just pulled the tree from the water, cut it up ,filled in the hole and never let those fools know anything about it.Why didn't you just do that?

  45. Aaron:

    Problem is juries these days have a huge percentage of public employees on them since they get full pay for serving on a jury. Most people dread a jury summons but public employees in California love them and, of course, they will side with their fellow bureaucrats.

  46. DavidKramer:

    How bout dealing with a fire department? Get your inspection for the fire sprinkler system in a commercial building. Get written up for several things, so change them to what the inspector specifies. Then on the return inspection, get a different inspector, he states to change it back the way it was. You get the idea...........Fresno by the way.

  47. DavidKramer:

    You are too logical, you must be regulated out of existence. Next!

  48. John Beier:

    I dealt with the California Costal Commission to build a house out on an oceanfront parcel about twenty five years ago. It was clear from the git-go that there was no way to penetrate this bureaucracy by just reading the rules and filing the permit applications, so I hired a fixer. He new all of the rules and, more importantly, he knew all of the people involved. He drafted everything up and had the whole thing done in a week. It was expensive, but it was efficient.
    I have no doubt that if I had tried to do that job myself, it would still be undone.

  49. Beaten by bureaucracy:

    This was nothing. Very briefly... While our old house was being undermined by the surf, we tried to get as permit to build a new place on our new site. It was distressed, had historically been inhabited, etc. We proposed to build out of sight, just our house and artist studios. We had university professors for landscape, engineering and architecture. We had enough money and materials to build. The permits took 4 1/2 years, all of our money and all we could borrow. Our house slowly fell into the Pacific. I began sleeping every other day, continuously exhausted, trying to pay for everything. I ended up in the cancer ward and barely survived, severely damaged by the treatments. My marriage took a beating and also barely survived. We moved up to the house site into a 1955 trailer and have been building out of pocket, by hand, for the last 25 years and are far from finished. Basically, i'd have to sat the coastal commission ruined my life.

  50. Ginger Stark:

    I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Thank you- we were looking into property on Mendocino Coast. Not anymore.