California’s State and Local Interest Spar Over Sea Level Rise

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) – Elected officials from cities and counties up and down coastal California agreed with state officials that sea level rise as a result of climate change is “happening now.”

The California Coastal Commission and elected representatives from 12 state counties met Friday to discuss how best to handle climate change issues that are currently happening, including sea-level rise, as well as how to balance city interests and coastal access issues with short-term rentals.

“This is a crisis,” said Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth during the meeting.

Several other leaders attested to the effects of rising seas in their communities, as infrastructure, roads, private homes and businesses are all being encroached upon by rising waters.

“I see it as I walk my dog every day,” said Half Moon Bay Mayor Harvey Rarback. “There is almost no road there anymore.”

The Coastal Commission also discussed the fractious issue of short-term rentals and whether they are providing more access to the coast, or driving up the cost of housing and making coastal cities more cost prohibitive for moderate income families.

The two issues have been major sticking points for the commission when it comes to approving the Local Coastal Programs of California jurisdictions grappling with how to deal with the two issues.

The agency has faced pushback by cities for rejecting bans on short-term rentals in order to maintain low-cost visitor accommodations along the coast. It has also faced criticism for suggesting cities need to incorporate managed retreat strategies into local plans for adapting to sea-level rise.

Santa Monica Beach

Managed retreat describes a strategy for confronting rising seas by moving the built environment away from places soon threatened with inundation. On the other end of the spectrum is coastal armoring in the form of seawalls, revetments, rip-rap and other structures intended to keep the waves at bay.

“If communities resort to sea walls, they are going to lose their beaches,” said Commissioner Donne Brownsey, who referred to the body of science that demonstrates such structures intensify beach erosion.

Brownsey and other commissioners said sea walls may favor private property owners at the expense of others who may come from outside the city to the beaches.

But Imperial Beach Councilman Ed Spriggs said managed retreat entails all sorts of policy complications and impediments as well.

“We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship,” he said, pointing to the significant private property rights hurdles that would accompany efforts to move households away from the coast.

Spriggs said the commission should work on programs representing a middle ground between armoring and retreat, saying sand replenishment, dune restoration and other programs need to be explored before governments use eminent domain to confiscate coastal property.

But commissioners insisted cities and counties need to start planning for the inevitable by identifying areas inside their jurisdiction that are currently prone to flooding and areas on the cusp of endangerment.

“Each and every district can make a list of their vulnerabilities,” said Commissioner Danya Bochco.

Ainsworth assured community leaders the commission was not interested in imposing a top down approach to the issue but said communities need to be prepared to plan for the issue.

Short-term rentals were no less contentious.

For Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, short-term rentals are a problem in his community where the affordable housing stock has been so decimated, entry-level housing includes homes that cost up to $900,000.

“We very much believe in the imperative of coastal access, but don’t also want to create a situation where working people only access the coast on their vacation and every day for their commute. That is a bad thing,” Williams said, in pointing out the environmental consequences of hospitality workers having to commute an hour or more to work.

Some of the local representatives expressed frustration the state is getting involved in what Bochco called “the most local of local” issues. But Ainsworth pointed out the Coastal Act does allow the commission to regulate short-term rentals, contrary to the beliefs of some California city attorneys, because of the mandate in the Coastal Act to preserve low-cost and affordable visitor accommodations.

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