It might sound like a technical change: allow the state Coastal Commission to impose and collect fines without the court approval that’s required now.

But just ask Brian Boudreau, the owner of a horse ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu.

Boudreau battled the commission as he was trying to rebuild his Malibu Valley Farms ranch after a 1996 brush fire. At one point, officials threatened to fine him $28 million for alleged violations. But because the commission needed court approval to collect the fines, commissioners allowed him to get retroactive permits instead. Otherwise, his horse ranch would have been put out to pasture.

But now, a bill in Sacramento would allow the commission to levy fines without court approval, at least through 2016.

“If I hadn’t had the protection of judicial review, I would have been forced to pay that $28 million or forfeit my business,” Boudreau said. “If this thing passes, what’s to stop the commission from effectively putting me or people like me out of business?”

Boudreau is one of hundreds of property owners in California’s coastal zone mobilizing to defeat the bill, along with a broad coalition of statewide business groups and trade associations. It is shaping up as one of the major battles this year over environmental legislation in Sacramento.

Opponents say the bill – AB 976 by Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, Assembly majority leader – would strip coastal property owners of court protection against commission abuse, leaving them with little recourse against multimillion-dollar penalties.

Case backlog

But Atkins and supporters say the bill is needed because it takes years for the courts to approve or reject the commission’s fines. They point to a backlog of more than 1,800 cases involving proposed fines awaiting adjudication.

In the meantime, supporters say, coastal developers and property owners are harming the coastal environment.

“There are major cases of coastal dumping, blocking of streams and destruction of habitat going on and the commission right now has no way to stop them because everything is all tied up for years in the courts,” said Sarah Sikich, science and policy director for Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica environmental group.

Sikich said that almost every other environmental agency in the state has the power to levy fines without court approval.

But critics say the legislation will lead the commission to levy more fines. They complain that there are not enough protections for property owners who might have done nothing wrong.

Fred Gaines, a founding partner of Encino law firm Gaines & Stacey LLP, which represents property owners before the commission, said that under the bill, fines for ongoing violations could quickly become astronomical.

“Take a homeowner who three years ago decided to build a patio deck and didn’t realize they needed a Coastal Commission permit,” said Gaines, who is also a Calabasas city councilman. “The commission comes in and hands out a violation notice charge: $10,000 a day for 1,000 days – that’s $10 million. And for a restaurant owner who has allegedly obstructed a path to the beach for the last 12 years? That fine could reach $30 million.”

And if the property owner cannot pay, Gaines noted that the legislation allows the commission to place a lien on the property.

He said fine levels like these have often come up in his dealings with the commission on behalf of clients. But they are rarely imposed because they require court approval.

“The one check and balance on the commission was that in order to collect the fine, they had to go to court. That forced them to negotiate,” he said. “Take that check away and the commission would be uncontrolled.”

The bill has also alarmed development groups, who say it will lead project opponents to hunt for even inconsequential violations in an attempt to slow or derail projects.

“It will make it much more difficult to do things within the coastal zone, more expensive and more time consuming,” said Matthew Hargrove, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the California Business Properties Association. “It will make it easier for groups that don’t like what you are doing to find violations and challenge the project.”

In an email response to Business Journal questions last week about her bill, Atkins said that property owners would be allowed up to 30 days to fix minor violations and avoid fines. She added that an alleged violator will have the opportunity to present their case to the commission in a hearing. And in order for the fine to be imposed, a majority of the commission’s 12 voting members must approve.

Finally, in a concession to critics, Atkins amended the bill to have the commission’s power to levy fines without court approval expire at the end of 2016 unless the Legislature votes to extend it.

“AB 976 contains many due-process protections for alleged violators,” Atkins said. “And the court process remains available to them if they think the law has been misapplied.”

But critics point out that under the bill, if alleged violators appeal a commission fine through the courts, the business owners would bear the burden of proof. Now, the burden of proof is on the commission to make the case that the fine is warranted. Also, they say that 30 days is often insufficient time to correct many minor violations.

“If a restaurant intrudes on an access path, that’s not something that can easily be fixed in 30 days,” Gaines said.

Rebuilding woes

In Boudreau’s case, the commission said that many of the structures he built on his horse ranch to replace those that burned down in the 1996 fire were bigger than the original structures. And because he had improved the efficiency of the irrigation system, he had increased the intensity of the land use. The commission argued that these were changes in land use that exceeded allowable limits under the Coastal Protection Act and set the fine level at $28 million.

The ranch might seem far from the beach, but a portion of Boudreau’s property is within five miles of the ocean and therefore is subject to commission rules.

Boudreau, 52, said that because commissioners knew they might not get court approval for the maximum fines, they decided it was best to allow him to apply for a new series of permits. It took five years and cost him nearly $3 million, but he finally got the permits and avoided the fines.

“There’s no way I could have reduced the size of the barns and replaced all my watering systems in 30 days,” he said. “And besides, that would have cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.”