Shore Protectors: The California Coastal Commission

Born amid controversy, this public agency is responsible for managing some of the most precious real estate in the world.

PUBLISHED MAY 5, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, which might be a huge resort if not for the Coastal Commission.

Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, which might be a huge resort if not for the Coastal Commission.   Crystal Birns   N/A


The California Coastal Commission is a crucial public body, controlling land and water use up and down California’s 1,100 miles of spectacular coastline. The future of this iconic and fast-changing landscape is in the hands of this public entity, which is beloved by coastal environmentalists, notorious among those who favor development, and little-known in the inland parts of the state.

Whether the state will attempt to solve its persistent water supply problems by turning to technologies such as desalination plants will ultimately be resolved in front of the Commission. Whether or not wealthy property owners will be able to install seawalls to protect their waterfront homes from rising sea levels, or be asked to flee the deteriorating coastal overlooks in a manner described by officials as “managed retreat,” will be adjudicated by the Coastal Commission.

Beach erosion, recreational access, and protection of endangered species that thrive in declining habitats up and down the coast are all matters that will be before the board. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the quasi-judicial body tasked with deciding what the immediate future of one of the most dynamic and contentious land areas on Planet Earth. 

Recent Controversy
The Coastal Commission is composed of 12 voting members appointed (four each) by the governor, the Senate Rules Committee, and the speaker of the Assembly. The commission captured headlines in February 2016 when it fired its executive director, Charles Lester.

Lester was the second executive director in the history of the commission, which was founded in 1972. He inherited the position from Peter Douglas, who helped create the commission and helmed it for 26 years.

While the official explanation from the commissioners at the time of Lester’s ouster was predicated on communication issues between staff and commissioners, many outside observers believed staff’s legal categorization of some parts of the coast as critically endangered habitat was precluding the development of some of the nation’s most prime real estate.

Specifically, Newport Banning Ranch LLC proposed the construction of a hotel, stores, and nearly 900 homes on a 400-acre former oilfield in what is now one of the most desirable locations in Orange County. When staff recommended disapproval based on the presence of wetlands, a vanishing coastal resource up and down California’s shoreline, commissioners grew frustrated, particularly because some of the identified wetlands were remediated oil-storage pits indicative of the parcel’s previous incarnation.

Lester said he believed he was fired due to the staff objections to approval of the project. The ensuing public backlash led to the replacement of many of the commissioners who voted to fire Lester.

Resolute Resource Protectors
The ranch’s application has not been approved, but remains pending. The ferocity and durability of that fight demonstrates the stridency that attends disputes between diverse organizations and individuals who have a stake in the California coast.

Since those febrile days, the Coastal Commission has once again shied away from supporting large, expensive projects, instead returning to a more of an environmental-justice-related posture. It also has prioritized beach access, using its recently enacted powers to levy fines to punish wealthy landowners preventing access to beaches.

In 2019, the commission fined the Ritz-Carlton $1.6 million for failing to allow public access to various segments of the coast in Half Moon Bay. In Newport Beach, the commission fined 33 separate property owners a total $1.7 million for building their yards in a manner that encroached on a public beach. The commission ordered the residents to restore the beach to its natural state.

The approach has attracted a fair share of critics, who argue the commission is overstepping its authority, infringing on the private property rights of owners in the coastal zone, and also causing a housing shortage by preventing projects that would expand the housing inventory.

The University of California Los Angeles issued a study in 2011 that found the restrictive policies regarding new construction in the coastal zone at that time compounded housing shortages and made the price of shetler more expensive for renters and homeowners.

For many coastal advocates, fines against wealthy landowners in the coastal zone and restrictive construction policies demonstrate the commission's return to its roots as an organization whose central mission is to protect the coast and preserve coastal access for all Californians, not just the wealthy few who can afford beachfront property. 

Created by Voters’ Initiative
The Coastal Commission got its start in part because of a large development called Sea Ranch, built on picturesque coastal bluffs in Sonoma County. The project, originally proposed in 1968, aimed to restrict 10 miles of the shoreline encompassed by the project for private use. This and similar projects mobilized Peter Douglas, a coastal activist, to organize groups opposed to the privatization of certain segments of the state’s coastline.

Before Douglas  assumed his role as the commission’s first executive director, he had to found the commission. In 1972, Douglas led the effort to secure enough signatures to put Proposition 20 on the ballot. The proposition asked voters to decide whether to create a “State Coastal Zone Conservation Commission” dedicated to “preservation, protection, restoration, and enhancement of environment and ecology of the coastal zone.”

The voters approved it that year and the commission’s regulatory authority was preserved and expanded by the California State Legislature in 1976, when it passed the California Coastal Act, which continues to regulate the commission’s mission and all land and water use projects along the coastal zone.

The coastal zone is defined as the area inland from the Median High Tide Line to a half-mile in urban areas, and by as much as five miles in certain rural areas. In all it encompasses 1.5 million acres of land from the Oregon border to Mexico, with 1,100 miles of coastline under its purview. That figure includes 287 miles of coastline on nine offshore islands.

Some of the successes the coastal commission achieved over the course of its nearly 50-year history is the preservation of a right-of-way owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad that became a popular multi-use trail called the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail. The popular paved path stretches 18 miles from Castroville into the heart of Monterey and is rated as one of the most picturesque ways to enjoy the coast for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Key to the Future: Balance
For advocates of coastal preservation, the commission is judged more by what isn’t along the coast than what is.

In 1972, a developer unveiled plans to build a high-rise hotel, a convention center and a shopping mall along with condos in Lighthouse Field on the westside of Santa Cruz. The fact that that field is still an open space dappled with spindly cypress trees and winding paths shows the impact of the Coastal Commission’s involvement in coastal politics more than any project the body has approved.

But the immediate and long-term future holds challenges for the Coastal Commission. Rising sea levels threaten public access of beaches in a more foreboding manner than rich people bent on private enjoyment of the state’s coastal resources. Water shortages have some clamoring for solutions that include the construction of desalination plants.

Private property advocates, homeless rights activists and others will continue to pressure the commission to allow for the construction of high-density housing projects in the coastal zone to reckon with the affordability crisis in California.

These needs must be balanced with those of the natural world, where endangered species continue to struggle against the rising tide of development. The Coastal Commission will experience no shortage of difficult decisions and knotty tradeoffs in the coming years. 

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