The California Coastal Commission: Real Estate Laws & Regulations

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The goal of the California Coastal Commission is to preserve the shoreline for current citizens and future generations in partnership with cities and counties by planning and regulating water and land use along the state's coastline. It oversees the development of beachfront properties, including the division of parcels, the building of structures and the issuance of zoning ordinances. It monitors any activities that change or intensify the use of, and public access to, coastal lands or waters in a specific area. The California Coastal Act is the basis for all decisions made by the California Coastal Commission. Property owners and developers who want to make significant changes to the California waterfront must follow the regulations laid out by the Act. Any changes will require a permit from either the Coastal Commission or from local city and county governments.

History of the California Coastal Commission

In 1972, Californians, concerned that the increase in private development along their shoreline was limiting the public's access to the ocean, established Proposition 20 by voter initiative to "Save Our Coast." The Coastal Commission came into being that year, and in 1976, the California Coastal Act extended its authority indefinitely. The Commission now monitors land that stretches from Mexico to Oregon and includes an additional 287 miles of coastline around nine offshore islands. It also encompasses about 1.5 million acres of land and stretches from 3 miles off the coast to inland boundaries that can be just a few blocks in urban areas or several miles in less developed regions.

Coastal Commission Organizational Structure

Today, the Coastal Commission protects the shoreline's natural resources and wildlife while ensuring public access and recreation with low-cost visitor accommodations. It also monitors alterations to the land; agricultural, commercial fishery and industrial activities; water quality; offshore oil and gas development; power plants; ports; and public works. The Coastal Commission has 16 members — 12 voting and four nonvoting. The California governor, the Senate Rules Committee and the Speaker of the Assembly appoint four voting members each and choose six from the public at large The remaining are elected officials, such as county supervisors or city council members from the six coastal regions specified in the Act. The nonvoting members are the secretaries of the Resources Agency; the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency; the Trade and Commerce Agency; and the chair of the State Lands Commission.

The 7 Articles of the California Coastal Act

According to Chapter 3 of the California Coastal Act, seven articles define development along the coast and mandate protection of public access, recreational opportunities, and marine and land resources in the area. These resource, planning and management policies used by the Commission in reviewing coastal development permits and Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) are:

  • Article 1 General:​ Chapter 3 is the standard of measurement for defining the legality of Local Coastal Programs and development permits. The information in this chapter is also the standard by which conflicts between local governments and the Commission see a resolution.
  • Article 2 Public Access:​ A property owner or developer must conspicuously post public access and recreational opportunity information consistent with public safety needs while protecting public rights, the rights of private property owners and natural resource areas from overuse.
  • Article 3 Recreation:​ The protection of coastal regions, including oceanfront land, uplands and private areas suited for water-oriented recreation.
  • Article 4 Marine Environment:​ The maintenance, enhancement and restoration of marine resources. This includes water quality issues, wetlands protections and coastal armoring, with special protection given to areas and species of biological or economic significance.
  • Article 5 Land Resources:​ Protects environmentally sensitive habitats against significant disruption of their values. The Commission also oversees development in areas adjacent to these ecologically sensitive habitats. The design of parks and recreation areas must reflect sensitivity to such habitats and not significantly degrade them.
  • Article 6 Development:​ Protects coastal views and limits coastal armoring, landform alterations and geologic hazards. Development must not have significant adverse effects on coastal resources. Land divisions, other than those for agriculture outside existing developed areas, can only occur where at least 50 percent of the usable parcels in the area have already seen development. The newly created parcels cannot be smaller than the average size of those surrounding them. 
  • Article 7 Industry:Industrial facilities can locate or expand within existing sites and can reasonably grow over the long term when feasibly accommodated to do so.  

Defining Development in Coastal Zone Permits

The California Coastal Commission issues Level 5 coastal development permits for any land use changes along the Coast and defines development as:

  • Structure construction, reconstruction, size alteration or demolition.
  • Earth grading, removing, placement and extraction.
  • Minor land division or subdivision.
  • Density or intensity changes in land use.
  • Major vegetation harvesting, except for agriculture and timber.

There are exemptions in improvements to existing structures that don't pose an environmental threat to the area. Additional exemptions also occur when:

  • The structure's location is not in or adjacent to an area with sensitive coastal resources or between the shore and the first public road.
  • Structures are destroyed by specified disasters that need replacement, provided they meet certain criteria. 
  • Repair and maintenance to a structure does not enlarge or replace the original involve substantial risk, adverse environmental impact, and is not in or adjacent to an area with sensitive coastal resource locations.
  • A temporary structure is up for less than two weeks and does not have a significant impact on sensitive coastal resources.
  • The installation, testing, service placement or replacement of utility connections within an existing facility.

Issuance of a Coastal Development Permit

Development within a coastal zone cannot take place without a permit issued by either the California Coastal Commission or the local government. If a developer is unsure if he would need a permit, he can view a California Coastal Zone Map or call the California Coastal Commission directly with the property address in question, a description of the project he wishes to undertake, and a request for written determination of his permit requirement. The Coastal Act defines development broadly to include usual development activities, such as the construction of buildings. But even where there is no construction involved, changes in the intensity or the use of land or water may also require a permit. The permit allows developers to comply with the policies of Chapter 3 of the Coastal Act.

Combined Land Use Plan

When development in a coastal area is about to take place, a county, city or port can also create an LCP, or local coastal program. This is a combined Land Use Plan (LUP) which entails 1) the land uses permissible in a specific area and the policies that apply to it, and 2) an Implementation Plan (IP), which implements those policies and is part of a city's zoning. Once the Coastal Commission certifies it, that entity becomes responsible for issuing a permit. For areas with Certified LCPs, the California Commission does not issue its own Coastal Development permit, but takes responsibility for reviewing amendments to the LCP and development permits issued locally. The Commission, however, retains permanent permit jurisdiction over certain specified lands, such as tidelands and public trust lands, and has appellate authority over specified categories of development.

Read More:What Is Maritime Law?

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