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Facing Sea Level Rise, California Coastal Commission Tests Powers for ‘Managed Retreat’ of Homes Along the Coastline

The California Coastal Commission (Commission)is charged with protecting the state’s beaches from the effects of overdevelopment. Yet with climate change projections predicting rising sea levels over the coming decades, the Coastal Commission is considering how best to approach the changing coastline in years to come. One option may result in the removal of beachfront residential homes, though the possibility may be at the limits of the Coastal Commission’s authority.


The Commission oversees development on over 1,100 miles of coastal land, possessing the authority (sometimes shared with local jurisdictions) to approve or deny the construction of any project within the Coastal Zone. Created in 1972 pursuant to Proposition 20, and endowed with this authority through the 1977 California Coastal Act, the Commission is charged with preserving public access to beaches. Recent estimates indicate that rising sea-levels could eliminate two-thirds of state beaches before 2100, with researchers for the U.S. Geological Survey describing rising oceans as a greater threat to the California economy than wildfires or extreme earthquakes. Effects are estimated to materialize as early as 2040.

In response, the Commission has expressed a desire for beach cities and coastal counties to create proactive plans to address climate impacts. One such plan could force homeowners to abandon beachfront homes. In addition to single-family residences, coastal infrastructure including wastewater treatment facilities, pipelines, highways and railroads may be at risk from rising sea levels. Yet the ability for the Commission to mandate that homes be abandoned to accommodate public access to changing coastlines has yet to be tested in the courts. The full authority of the Commission will need to be litigated to determine whether the agency can put limits on seawalls, and how far it may be able to go with actions that could undermine property values or render some homes unlivable in the medium term.

Upcoming Coastal Commission Hearings

The agency plans to hold hearings in July on proposed language for managing sea-level rise in residential areas, and expects to adopt a “Residential Adaptation Guidance” by the end of the year. The most recent draft details several options, including “managed retreat” which would remove homes so beaches can migrate inland rather than disappearing under the rising water. The “managed retreat” proposal already faces fierce opposition from local governments, homeowners, and the real estate industry, with the California Association of Realtors opposing the suggestion that cities create hazard zones as a first step towards a “managed retreat.” Those zones would likely negatively impact property values, and could make obtaining insurance more difficult for homeowners. It may even make selling the homes more difficult.

“Managed retreat” is only one of the options being included in the upcoming Guidance, though it has understandably taken much of the focus leading up to the hearings. The Commission does not claim the authority to force the removal of any private homes, but instead hopes to encourage local governments to create and implement plans that will protect beaches against the encroaching ocean.

Cities and counties with land in the Coastal Zone have oversight authority as well under the Coastal Act, and are intended to create local coastal programs to manage development near the coastline. Cities with approved plans have primary authority to decide whether to issue new permits for development, though the Commission can challenge permits if it believes they do not comply with the Coastal Act.

Opponents of the “managed retreat” strategy argue it would amount to a taking of private property, and should be accomplished through eminent domain rather than any local or statewide policy harming the property value of coastal residences. Yet taking a property through eminent domain requires paying the homeowner fair market value, and the value of a home which may soon be harmed due to rising sea levels may be increasingly questionable in the years to come.

Yet other options favored by local governments to date—including dumping sand on beaches to combat higher ocean levels—only work in the short term and serve only to delay the inevitable. The Commission’s first guidance on sea-level rise was released in 2015, and told cities and counties of the need to address the issue in planning and permitting decisions. To date, local efforts have not been sufficient to assuage the Commission’s concerns.

Sea Walls Reduce Access but Fail to Combat Sea-Level Rise

One of the primary issues in recent years has been the propagation of sea walls. In 1971, walls existed on roughly 7 percent of beaches in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. By 1998, that number grew to 33 percent, and in 2018 it reached 38%, based on research conducted by California State University, Channel Islands. In response, the Commission has tightened policies permitting sea walls, now limiting walls to homes built before 1977, when the Coastal Act took effect. Homes built before that year which undergo major redevelopment are also considered new and must waive their right to a sea wall to obtain Commission approval.

Conclusion and Implications

The California Coastal Commission faces great opposition to its proposed “managed retreat” policies in the forthcoming “Residential Adaptation Guidance.” While pushback is inevitable, the limits to the Commission’s authority remain unknown until challenged in court. Rising sea levels also alter the Commission’s jurisdiction, which covers the Coastal Zone, or the area extending inland roughly 1,000 yards from the mean high tide line. As sea levels rise, the Coastal Zone will move further inland, and the Commission’s authority will travel with it. As the ocean moves inland, public access is required to do the same, with inevitable effects on private property. How the Commission, and the local jurisdictions it must work alongside, will handle these shifts may completely alter the way we think about public access to beaches and private property along the coastline.

(Jordan Ferguson)