Environmental groups were excited last week when a key bill they worked on all year came up for a final vote in Sacramento.

The measure would have allowed the California Coastal Commission to fine people who illegally block public access to beaches, destroy wetlands or build homes without permits -- rather than having to take them to court. But at the last minute, eight Democrats, including three from Bay Area coastal districts, reversed their earlier votes and killed the bill at the urging of developers and farm interests.

"We were surprised," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "This a no-brainer. It was so consistent with what the public wants."

The failure highlights a recent trend: Environmentally friendly legislation has become an endangered species in Sacramento.

California Democrats hold huge majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Issues dear to their hearts, from raising the minimum wage to passing tougher gun-control laws, made it to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk this year.

But among the big stack of bills that Brown now has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto, measures to protect California's environment are few and far between.

"The cold truth is in recent years, most environmental bills were roadkill," said Warner Chabot, former executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters. "It's embarrassing."


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California has not passed a landmark environmental law since 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB32, which required the state's oil refineries, factories and power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The trend has some wondering if California's environmental movement has stalled, at least in the state Capitol.

"We've got to go back and re-engage our base and get these guys to understand that the public wants clean air, clean water and open space," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, a nonprofit group.

Fred Keeley, a former Santa Cruz assemblyman and environmental leader, said environmentalists are having problems for three reasons. First, Brown has said the state economy is still recovering and he wants few new laws on businesses. Second, many new Democrats in Sacramento are from conservative areas. And green groups haven't partnered with Latino lawmakers enough.

"The environmental community has not kept up with the demographic changes of the state," he said.

A few green measures squeaked through this year. Over the objections of hunters, lawmakers approved a statewide ban on hunting with lead bullets to help protect endangered California condors from lead poisoning.

It was the latest win for the Humane Society of the United States, which pushed through a ban two years ago on shark fin soup, and last year won passage of a law to prohibit bear hunting with packs of dogs.

But nearly every other significant environmental measure failed. Attempts to ban plastic bags statewide to reduce ocean litter died when Democrats split over concerns about job losses. Bills to require drug companies to take back expired pharmaceuticals to reduce water pollution -- and to place a moratorium on the oil and gas extraction technique called fracking -- also were defeated amid industry opposition. Even a bill to increase from 6.5 cents to 7 cents a barrel the fee that oil companies pay to fund California's oil spill cleanup agency went down to defeat as oil companies pushed back.

On the coastal bill, AB976 by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, farmers and ranchers were among the main opponents. They worried that Coastal Commission staff would make life miserable for farmers who grade farm roads, build fences or make other changes to coastal land.

"We worked really hard on this bill," said Margot Parks of the California Cattlemen's Association. "This could have been very costly and really damaging to our businesses."

The bill died when Democrats who voted yes in May abstained in a final vote Tuesday. Among them: Marc Levine of San Rafael, Rich Gordon of Los Altos, Luis Alejo of Watsonville, Susan Bonilla of Concord and Jim Frazier of Antioch.

Levine said Friday he was concerned that a last-minute change in the bill could have allowed the Coastal Commission to collect millions in fines against property owners who had minor violations.

"I want to make sure we get this right," he said, promising to co-sponsor a similar bill next year. "In my district we value the coast highly. It's critically important we protect it."

Chabot noted that Levine could have tried to make changes but did not.

The most high-profile environmental bill to pass was SB4, by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabasas, which requires companies that engage in fracking get permits from the state, alert neighboring property owners and report chemicals they use. But many environmentalists opposed it, preferring a full moratorium.

Brown is expected to sign the bill.

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN