(CN) – With hundreds of miles of picturesque and accessible coastline, California has an abundance of beaches for all of its 39 million residents plus tourists to enjoy. But while the state’s constitution guarantees a public right of beach access and there are over 1,000 access points statewide, low-income and minority communities have long struggled to connect with the Golden State’s majestic shoreline.
Spurred by a 2016 law, the California Coastal Commission sought answers to what it calls a glaring case of environmental injustice. And on Wednesday, the regulator released a rough draft of its first-ever environmental justice policy.
“[The policy’s] intent is to reflect the needs of those who have been historically left out of the process,” said Coastal Commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz. “Because until we can do that, the Coastal Act’s vision of coastal protection and access for all people won’t be fully realized.”
The primary goal of the policy is to “provide guidance and clarity” for commissioners when making new permit decisions. The commission wants to meet more often with environmental justice groups, make its monthly hearings more accessible and convenient, consult tribal groups before votes and promote cheap recreational activities.
“Understanding that even nominal costs can become insurmountable barriers to access for vulnerable populations and underserved communities, the commission confirms that preserving and providing for lower-cost recreational facilities is also an environmental justice imperative,” the draft policy states.
The draft policy is collaboration between the commission and over 50 environmental justice groups and nonprofits. The commission is still taking feedback and public comment and hopes to officially adopt the final policy by the end of the year.
A 2016 law which required the commission to “specifically consider environmental justice” when making permit decisions jumpstarted the process. Assembly Bill 2616 also required that one commissioner work directly with communities vulnerable to pollution and with barriers to beach access.
California enacted an official environmental justice law in 1999, defining it as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
The ethnic and economical beach-divide was recently dissected in a Stanford environmental study showing that although most Californians live within 62 miles of the coast, communities nearest to beaches are disproportionately white, wealthy and older than those inland. Other studies have revealed that in many areas, families living within a few miles of the beach have never enjoyed the ocean.
Nonprofit surfing groups testified during Wednesday’s hearing in Fort Bragg, outlining hurdles they face just to hold free youth events on California beaches.
Representatives from City Surf Project, a group that holds free surfing camps for San Francisco youth, said one-day permits at Pacifica State Beach can cost the group over $300. Another group presented a study showing varying permit costs at 65 beaches surveyed, with some beaches asking for the surfing groups to sign a contract to hold their events.
Linda Locklin, the commission’s coastal access manager, says the cities should focus on reforming their recreational permit process for nonprofits.
“[Nonprofits] would like to see a collaborative solution, some streamlining of the process so they can just get on with doing their good works,” Locklin told the commission.