Facebook billionaire Sean Parker's extravagant wedding last month made international headlines when he agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle violations of California's coastal laws for building rock walls, a stone bridge, a cottage, dance floor and other structures in a sensitive Big Sur forest without permits.
But it turns out the case is the exception rather than the rule.
In a little-known wrinkle of state law, the California Coastal Commission, which brokered the settlement with Parker, has no authority to issue fines when people block access to public beaches, destroy wetlands or build coastal homes without permits.
Now, a bill moving through the state Legislature would change that by giving the commission the ability to impose fines.
But the measure is sparking a heated debate between environmentalists and business groups -- and emerging as one of the major environmental battles in Sacramento this year.
"We could never imagine telling a police officer, 'If somebody is going 60 mph down a 25 mph roadway, go ahead and stop them, but you can't give them a ticket,'" said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California. "That's what the state has said to the Coastal Commission."
Under the 1976 law that set up the commission, the agency can collect money only by taking violators to court. And with limited staffing and funds, the commission has done that just four times in the past 10 years. There are now 1,837 backlogged cases, some dating back 20 years. That means that unless they agreed to voluntarily settle like Parker did, hundreds of property owners have faced no consequences for breaking California's coastal protection laws.
The cases range from wealthy Malibu residents putting up illegal "no parking" signs to block families from public beaches to a company suspected of illegally mining sand on Monterey County beaches to property owners dumping debris on the shoreline in rural Del Norte County.
Many property owners and business groups have long distrusted and disliked the Coastal Commission, saying that its rules can be Byzantine and its bureaucracy difficult to deal with. The last thing they want, they say, is for the commission to have more power.
"Sometimes the violations stem from a phone call -- one neighbor doesn't like something another neighbor has done -- and they pick up the phone and call the Coastal Commission, and it could be something like a rose bush that is too high up, or your wall is not the proper dimension," said Valerie Nera, policy advocate with the California Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill.
The bill, AB976, by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, passed the Assembly in May by a 42-32 vote, with most Democrats supporting the bill. And the measure has already cleared two Senate committees.
The bill was recommended by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office, which noted in a 2008 report: "Currently, in order for the commission to issue a fine or penalty, the commission must file a case in the superior court. This process is cumbersome and results in few fines and penalties issued by the commission due to the high cost of pursuing enforcement through the courts."
In the case of tech mogul Parker, he voluntarily settled the case with the commission. The settlement covered years of penalties for past land-use violations by the Ventana Inn, where he held the wedding. Parker told The Associated Press last month that he agreed to pay the $2.5 million, which will be used to build public trails in Big Sur and for other environmental projects, after Ventana officials threatened to cancel his wedding at the last minute unless he paid the bill to settle the inn's previous coastal violations.
But often property owners choose not to settle, simply tearing up violation letters and ignoring the commission's cease-and-desist orders.
The commission has only 12 staff members in its enforcement division to police the entire 1,100-mile coastline. It has a total staff of 135, compared with 212 in 1980. Its budget is $19 million, half what it was in 1980 when adjusted for inflation.
Atkins noted that more than 20 other state agencies, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Air Resources Board, can issue fines on their own. She noted that she has changed her bill to allow the commission to collect no more than 75 percent of what a court could order for violations, and for it to take effect over a trial period that ends Jan. 1, 2017.
"This should be a no-brainer," she said. "If we really care about our coastline, we have a responsibility to make sure we preserve it for our kids and our grandkids."
Critics of Atkins' bill, however, contend that the current system works fine.
"If somebody puts up illegal 'no trespassing' signs near a beach, those are black-and-white issues," said Margo Parks, director of governmental relations for the California Cattlemen's Association, which opposes the bill. "What we're concerned with is other issues where there is a lot of gray area, like when somebody is grading a ranch road."
Steve Blank, a Menlo Park tech investor who served on the commission for six years, said previous attempts to give the agency the power to fine have died in Sacramento.
"The people who tend to violate this stuff tend to be big political donors," he said. "So that's why it hasn't been there. Why upset a developer who might write you a check in the next election?"
Paul Rogers covers environmental issues and resources. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.
Because of a lack of staff and money, along with the inability to issue fines, the California Coastal Commission has 1,837 backlogged enforcement cases. Here's a breakdown of the violations by category:
Blocking access to public beaches: 29 percent*
Illegal road building and grading: 27 percent
Development without permits in sensitive habitat and wetlands: 24 percent
Removal of coastal vegetation without permits: 24 percent
Water pollution: 13 percent
Diking, filling and dredging: 8 percent
Geological hazards: 6 percent
Marine resources: 5 percent
Public safety: 4 percent
Flood hazards: 3 percent
* Numbers add up to more than 100 percent because some cases have multiple violations.
Source: California Coastal Commission