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Student Researchers Trace California's Coastal Act and the Agency it Spawned

Dec 18 2015

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Big Sur Coastline

The Big Sur coastline (Photo: Vadim Kurland via Flickr)
 

Imagine the state of California without its coastline: a thousand miles of sand dunes, forests, rocky inlets, marinas, muscle beaches, and coastal mountains. While the state's constitution enshrines coastal access as a right of every Californian, citizens looked seaward with alarm in the early 1970s as an oil spill fouled the waters off Santa Barbara and some extravagant development projects sought to bar the public from beloved beaches.

The result was the Coastal Act of 1972, a ballot measure passed with 52.5% of the vote, with strong support among Central and Southern counties along the coast. The Act led to the establishment of the California Coastal Commission, a public agency charged with protecting the coast, regulating development, and ensuring continued public access to a coastal zone extending three miles out to sea.

“For some people, the Coastal Commission is their least favorite agency.”

Its mandate placed the Coastal Commission at odds with powerful political and economic forces in California, and over the four decades since its establishment, its budget has been chipped away, its full-time staff declining nearly by half since 1980. “For some people, the Coastal Commission is their least favorite agency,” says Quito Tsui, a research assistant for the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

Four decades since the Coastal Act, how has a small agency fared at regulating development along a vast shoreline? Two groups of research assistants spent the summer of 2015 working for the Center's California Coastal Commission project to trace the origins of the agency, and assess the cumulative work done under its aegis.

Examining the Commission's Localized Implementation

One of the keys to the Commission's effectiveness may be a decentralized structure and reliance on localized implementation. The Commission is divided into six regional offices, these offices in turn look to local communities to produce their own development plans – with public comment and input.

The research assistants Elana Leone and Quito Tsui – advised by the Center's Iris Hui – sought to examine the Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) created by local municipalities and under the supervision of the Coastal Commission.

Leone and Tsui approached their survey with three principal questions:

  • How did the Local Coastal Programs they studied align with the Coastal Act?
  • What degree of influence does the Coastal Act have on these LCPs?
  • How much autonomy does the LCP program give to local jurisdictions and their residents?
Elana Leone PortraitQuito Tsui Portrait

Elana Leone, left, and Quito Tsui

Tsui and Leone looked at seven Local Coastal Programs produced within two of the Coastal Commission's six zones: the North Central Coast zone running southward from Sonoma to San Francisco, and the Central Coast zone extending south from San Mateo to Monterey counties.

In their report, entitled “A Closer Look at Local Coastal Programs: A Case Study of the North Central Coast,” the authors explored the seven plans in depth, creating a matrix for point by point comparison, and mapped critical areas in each of the local communities, from wetlands to coastal structures, erosion hot spots, and areas threatened by sea level rise. Despite many commonalities, the program documents varied widely in length, scope, and issue focus.

California Coastal Commission Regions Map

Coastal Commission regions (enlarge)

“We found that despite the Coastal Act’s unquestionable influence on the LCPs in the North Central Coast,” write Leone and Tsui, “that each coastal jurisdiction has some flexibility in establishing its own priorities.” The authors noted, for example, that while Marin county was explicity devoted to protecting and supporting its coastal agriculture, the coastal plans for Daly City, Half Moon Bay and Pacifica were primarily concerned with urban issues like affordable housing and coastal access. This is understandable given the great difference in size and urban density between Marin and the latter urban areas.

But other differences were harder to reconcile: why, Leone and Tsui ask, did only some of the LCPs address bluff erosion and rising sea levels, when coastal hazards like these are felt equally among all of the communities they surveyed? In particular, they asked why San Francisco's LCP doesn't address flooding or flood prevention, given the number of residents in the coastal zone. “This lack of consistency across the board,” they write, “can have significant policy consequences given the seriousness of the threats dune erosion, bluff erosion and flooding pose to the North Central Coast.”

Despite the shortcomings of individual plans, Leone and Tsui conclude that the variation among the LCPs overall is a positive result of the Commission's decentralization of coastal management. "Despite the possibility of the Coastal Act whitewashing local areas and their unique characteristics," the authors write, "we instead found that the Coastal Act is in fact a malleable document that more often than not, works with local governments to create a document that protects the interests of both local areas and the coast."

READ THE COMPLETE REPORT BY ELANA LEONE AND QUITO TSUI »