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The California Coastal Commission's Legal Authority to Address Climate Change

Human activity is contributing to global climate change, which will have increasingly significant impacts on California and its coastal environments and communities. The Coastal Act mandates the California Coastal Commission to “protect, conserve, restore, and enhance” the state’s coastal resources. As a result, the Commission must consider climate change, including global warming and potential sea level rise, through its planning, regulatory, and educational activities, and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the detrimental impacts of global warming on our coast.

In addition, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires public agencies to evaluate whether their discretionary actions have a significant effect on the physical environment.

See below for:

Legal authorities for Coastal Commission involvement

Both marine and terrestrial coastal resources are adversely affected by global warming. The Coastal Act has a variety of policies that protect coastal resources and require the Commission to develop technical expertise and take planning and regulatory steps aimed at slowing global warming, such as:

Guadalupe Sand Dunes. Photo © Chuck Graham
Guadalupe Sand Dunes
Photo © Chuck Graham

Policies Concerning Marine and Terrestrial Coastal Resources:

  • Protection of Recreation Uses--section 30220: “Coastal areas suited for water-oriented recreational activities that cannot readily be provided at inland water areas shall be protected for such uses.”

  • Protection of Public Access--section 30211: “Development shall not interfere with the public's right of access to the sea where acquired through use or legislative authorization, including, but not limited to, the use of dry sand and rocky coastal beaches to the first line of terrestrial vegetation.”

  • Protection of Marine Resources--section 30230: “Marine resources shall be maintained, enhanced, and where feasible, restored. Special protection shall be given to areas and species of special biological or economic significance. Uses of the marine environment shall be carried out in a manner that will sustain the biological productivity of coastal waters and that will maintain healthy populations of all species of marine organisms adequate for long-term commercial, recreational, scientific, and educational purposes.”

  • Protection of Biological Productivity--section 30231: “The biological productivity and the quality of coastal waters, streams, wetlands, estuaries, and lakes appropriate to maintain optimum populations of marine organisms and for the protection of human health shall be maintained and, where feasible, restored through, among other means, minimizing adverse effects of waste water discharges and entrainment, controlling runoff, preventing depletion of ground water supplies and substantial interference with surface water flow, encouraging waste water reclamation, maintaining natural vegetation buffer areas that protect riparian habitats, and minimizing alteration of natural streams.”

  • Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA)--section 30240: “(a) Environmentally sensitive habitat areas shall be protected against any significant disruption of habitat values, and only uses dependent on those resources shall be allowed within those areas.”

  • Prime Agricultural Land--section 30241: Maintain prime agricultural land "(a) By establishing stable boundaries separating urban and rural areas, including, where necessary, clearly defined buffer areas to minimize conflicts between agricultural and urban land uses." and "(b) By limiting conversions of agricultural lands around the periphery of urban areas to the lands where the viability of existing agricultural use is already severely limited by conflicts with urban uses or where the conversion of the lands would complete a logical and viable neighborhood and contribute to the establishment of a stable limit to urban development."

  • Existing Development Location--section 30250: "(a) New residential, commercial, or industrial development...shall be located within, contiguous with, or in close proximity to, existing developed areas able to accommodate it or, where such areas are not able to accommodate it, in other areas with adequate public services and where it will not have significant adverse effects, either individually or cumulatively, on coastal resources..."

  • Scenic and Visual Qualities--section 30251: “The scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas shall be considered and protected as a resource of public importance.”

    Sea Lion in Giant Kelp, Santa Barbara Island. Photo © Hal Beral
    Sea Lion in Giant Kelp, Santa Barbara Island
    Photo © Hal Beral
  • Technical Advice and Recommendations--section 30006.5: “The Legislature further finds and declares that sound and timely scientific recommendations are necessary for many coastal planning, conservation, and development decisions and that the commission should, in addition to developing its own expertise in significant applicable fields of science, interact with members of the scientific and academic communities in the social, physical, and natural sciences so that the commission may receive technical advice and recommendations with regard to its decision making, especially with regard to issues such as coastal erosion and geology, marine biodiversity, wetland restoration, the question of sea level rise, desalination plants, and the cumulative impact of coastal zone developments.”
Policies Concerning Energy Consumption and Transportation:
  • Energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled are addressed in section 30253: “New development shall: …(4) Minimize energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled.”

  • Public transit is addressed in section 30252: “The location and amount of new development should maintain and enhance public access to the coast by (1) facilitating the provision or extension of transit service, (2) providing commercial facilities within or adjoining residential development or in other areas that will minimize the use of coastal access roads, (3) providing non-automobile circulation within the development, (4) … or providing substitute means of serving the development with public transportation, (5) assuring the potential for public transit for high intensity uses such as high-rise office buildings….”

Coastal Commission jurisdiction

The California Coastal Commission has planning, regulatory, and permitting responsibilities, in partnership with local governments, over all “development” taking place within the coastal zone, a 1.5 million-acre area stretching 1,100 miles along the state’s coastline from Oregon to Mexico (and around nine offshore islands). The coastal zone extends seaward three miles, while its landward boundary varies from several miles inland in places such as the Eel River and the Elkhorn Slough, to as close as a few hundred feet from the shore in other areas. The Commission’s enabling legislation, the Coastal Act of 1976, created a comprehensive coastal protection program grounded in partnerships between the Commission and local government jurisdictions (15 counties and 60 cities) within the coastal zone. Among the coastal resources specifically protected within the Coastal Act are: public access to the coastline, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive habitat areas (ESHA), agriculture, low-cost visitor-serving recreational uses, visual resources, commercial and recreational fishing, and community character.

Garibaldi. Photo © Diane Hotz
Photo © Diane Hotz
The Commission, coastal cities and counties, and other state and federal agencies that have authorities within California’s coastal areas are grappling with how to best prepare for the impacts of global climate change, including sea level rise, increased storm frequency and intensity, coastal erosion and flooding. Those impacts could include devastating damage to coastal and marine habitats, wetlands, and water quality; expensive disruptions or long-term damage to coastal recreation and public access, commercial and residential developments; and the inundation of public facilities and infrastructure, including highways, bridges, airports, commercial harbors, ports, and water treatment and wastewater facilities.

Coordination with Local Governments

California's coastal management program is carried out through a partnership between state and local governments. Implementation of Coastal Act policies is accomplished primarily through the preparation of local coastal programs (LCPs) that are required to be completed by each of the 15 counties and 60 cities located in whole or in part in the coastal zone. Development within the coastal zone may not commence until a coastal development permit has been issued by either the Commission or a local government that has a Commission-certified local coastal program (LCP).

Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas. Photo © Tina Carlson
Elephant Seals, Piedras Blancas
Photo © Tina Carlson
A Local Coastal Program consists of the following documents: (a) a land use plan (b) zoning ordinances, (c) zoning district maps, and (d) within sensitive coastal resource areas, other implementing actions. Taken together, these documents meet the requirements of and implement the provisions and policies of the Coastal Act at the local level. Once the LCP is certified by the Commission as being consistent with the Coastal Act, most coastal development permit authority is delegated to the local government. The Commission retains permit jurisdiction over certain specified lands (such as tidelands and public trust lands). Local government actions may in some cases be appealed to the Commission (e.g. development within 300 feet of the shoreline, within 100 feet of wetlands and streams, and large public works projects).
Burrowing Owl, Berkeley Marina. Photo © Vladimir Graizer
Burrowing Owl, Berkeley Marina
Photo © Vladimir Graizer

The Commission also reviews and acts on port master plans and master plan amendments from the industrial ports of Hueneme, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. Commission approval is necessary to allow port expansions to meet future growth needs. A similar requirement applies to long range development plans of universities in the coastal zone (e.g., the University of California campuses at Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and San Diego; Pepperdine University; and San Diego State University).

Local governments may amend a certified LCP to add new policies, ordinances, maps or other necessary components, or to make changes to existing information. Amendments to certified LCPs only become effective after approval by the Commission. Similarly, Port Districts and Universities may choose to update and/or change their Port Master Plans or University Long-Range Development Plans (LRDPs); such changes must be reviewed by the Commission before they become effective.

Human activities and development in the coastal zone can affect climate change, and the impacts of climate change (such as sea level rise and increased storm frequency) can affect existing property and infrastructure in the coastal zone. Local governments, Port Districts, and University administrations currently administer coastal plans that may contain policies, ordinances and standards that can help address impacts of climate change. But as new science and other information is developed, these plans may need to be updated and revised.