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The California Coastal Commission, which regulates construction and other activities along the state’s 840-mile coastline, was created by ballot initiative in 1972.

Now, 34 years later, the commission’s executive director fears that another initiative — Proposition 90 — could be the powerful agency’s undoing.

“I think it has the potential,” Peter Douglas says, “to be devastating.”

Proposition 90 is one of four ballot measures in Western states conceived by property-rights activists seeking to quash what they describe as eminent-domain abuse and oppressive land-use regulation. It would require compensation for “government actions that result in substantial economic loss to private property,” such as building restrictions.
The Protect Our Homes Coalition, the organization behind Proposition 90, says it would merely “reaffirm private property rights” in the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded government powers of condemnation.

But Douglas brands Proposition 90 “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” saying that its real aim is to “cripple state and local agencies’ ability to protect community values and the environment by imposing unrealistic restrictions on their ability to regulate land for the benefit of the public.”

How might things change if California voters approve Proposition 90 on November 7?

Example: The Pebble Beach Company — whose owners include actor-director Clint Eastwood, golf legend Arnold Palmer, and former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, now the chairman of the United States Olympic Committee — wants to build a golf course, an equestrian center, a hotel, and luxury homes in Monterey County, near Carmel. The Coastal Commission has fought the project in its current incarnation, contending that it would lead to the destruction of some 17,000 rare Monterey pines and cause other environmental damage. The project is on hold.

If Proposition 90 passes, Douglas says, the commission’s ability to stand up to such threats could be greatly diminished. “If Proposition 90 were in place,” he asks, “would the state have to compensate the Pebble Beach Company for the economic impact — they’d obviously say negative — or give them a waiver to do [the development] at the expense of natural resources, which are irreplaceable?”

The measure’s repercussions would be felt throughout the state, says Tom Adams, the president of the California League of Conservation Voters. “It would be impossible to add new species to the state endangered species list,” he says. “The entire timber-harvest permitting scheme in California would be threatened. Bizarre things could happen.”

Andrew W. Schwartz, a land-use lawyer in San Francisco who’s advising the “No on 90” coalition, says that proponents of the measure have engaged in a masterful game of deception.

“In the grand, historical context, what’s going on here is that powerful business interests have a strategy to roll back government,” Schwartz says. “They’re using [Kelo] to get their real objective through — to gut the government’s police power to regulate business, including land use, development, mining, and grazing.”

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...