Coastal Act and the California Coastal Commission
Over forty years ago, voters concerned about coastal development and its impact on public access and coastal resources worked for Proposition 20, the California Coastal Conservation Initiative. This Initiative, passed in 1972, created the Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Act and the Coastal Zone
Four years later, the State Legislature enacted the California Coastal Act, which is the primary law that governs the decisions of the Coastal Commission. The Act outlines, among other things, standards for development within the Coastal Zone.
The article Why California's Beaches are Open to Everyone provides an excellent summary of the factors that led to the passage of the Coastal Act and the formation of the California Coastal Commission. The article also discusses the positive effects of 40 years of coastal management in California.
The Coastal Zone encompasses 1.5 million acres of land, and stretches from three miles at sea to an inland boundary that varies from several blocks in urban areas to as much as five miles in less developed areas. Covering 1,100 miles of California coastline from Oregon to Mexico, including 287 miles of shoreline surrounding nine off-shore islands, the Coastal Zone extends into federal waters under the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act.
Local Coastal Programs
The Coastal Act is umbrella legislation designed to encourage local governments to create Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) to govern decisions that determine the short- and long-term conservation and use of coastal resources. These LCPs can be thought of as the equivalent of General Plans for areas within the Coastal Zone. Local Coastal Programs must be consistent with the policies of Coastal Act, and protect public access and coastal resources.
Until the Coastal Commission certifies an LCP, the Commission makes the final decisions on all development within a jurisdiction (city or county) within the Coastal Zone. Once an LCP is certified for a jurisdiction, decisions are handled locally, but can be appealed to the Commission.
The Heart of the Coastal Act
Chapter 3, the so-called "heart of the Coastal Act," contains the standards used by the Commission in the review of coastal development permits and Local Coastal Programs. The chapter's seven articles govern all development along the Coast, and mandate protection of public access, recreational opportunities, and marine and land resources.
Article 1 states that Chapter 3 shall be used as the standard against which the legality of LCPs and development permits will be measured.
Article 2 mandates that development shall not interfere with the public's right to access the (sea including dry sand beach) beach.
Article 3 covers recreation, placing a priority on coastal dependent public and private recreation over residential development.
Article 4 deals with protection of the marine environment, including water quality issues, wetlands protections and coastal armoring.
Article 5 includes protections for environmentally sensitive habitat, agriculture and archeological resources.
Article 6 deals with development and issues such as protection of coastal views, limitations on coastal armoring and landform alteration, and geologic hazards.
Article 7 covers industrial development.
Since it is not possible to condense the Coastal Act into a short article, it's important for coastal activists to read the Coastal Act to learn about it, because it is the basis for all Coastal Commission decisions. As a citizen, if you have concerns about a project, your objections must be based on the Act and its policies. The Coastal Commission website has links to the agenda for past and present meetings. Many agenda items also have links to staff reports where proposed projects have been evaluated for compliance with the coastal act. You can view and listen to the meetings live on the web.
Balancing Development and Resource Protection
The Coastal Act is widely regarded as a well-constructed environmental law, because it seeks to balance the right to develop with very strong policies to protect resources. If the Coastal Commission is doing its job, and citizens are providing the input and information the Coastal Commissioners need to do that job, the result should be that development approved for the Coastal Zone is consistent with and respectful of the Coastal Act.
Resources and Additional Information
You can read and download a copy of the Coastal Act from the Coastal Commission website.
Also see History of Coastal Zone Management In California from Mitigation Through Surf Enhancement.
In 2017, a report The Past, Present, and Future of California’s Coastal Act, Overcoming Division to Comprehensively Manage the Coast was released. This report draws from ideas discussed at a convening on coastal governance that explored the lessons of the past in order to chart a course for the next 40 years.
This article is a slightly-edited version of an article written by long-time former Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan which was published June 2005 in Green Footnotes.