Coastal Watchdog Expects Fight Over Sea-Level Rise Countermeasures

(CN) – California Coastal Commission leaders expressed concern Wednesday over what they anticipate to be a knock-down, drag-out fight between coastal homeowners and local governments as sea-level rise poses an imminent threat to development on California’s coast.

Commission staff presented the new Residential Adaptation Policy Guidelines for how the commission should guide local governments in planning for shoreline development and redevelopment so it can withstand coastal hazards into the future.

They also heard how the public trust doctrine, which ensures access to the coast and public waterways for all Californians, can be leveraged when making tough calls on whether to approve or deny a coastal development permit.

Staffers told commissioners the threat of sea-level rise will overlap with planning and development decisions made now. Since the extent to which sea-level rise will change the coast is unknown, commission staff suggested commissioners should approve conditional coastal development permits which allow the Coastal Commission to retain the right to review and possibly deny previously granted permits down the road.

The commission has already started placing time conditions on projects to give itself some wiggle room to potentially remove previously approved coastal projects if sea-level rise requires it. Last month, the California Supreme Court upheld the commission’s decision to put a 20-year expiration date on a seawall permit after the homeowners contested the condition in court.

A sea-level rise study earlier this year estimated California could lose two-thirds of its beaches by the end of this century, something the commission has been mindful of as it works with cities to approve or update local coastal plans.

The adaptation guidelines, once formally adopted by the commission later this year, will serve as a companion to the commission’s 2015 Sea-Level Rise Policy Guidelines and will provide more in-depth guidance for how local governments can prepare for the impact sea-level rise will have on the California coast.

The companion policy will help the commission guide coastal cities to balance private property rights with coastal resource protection.

But commissioners felt the guidelines should go a step further and be adopted as binding regulations rather than advisory guidelines, in light of pushback the commission expects from disgruntled homeowners and developers who will likely have projects denied or severely restricted in the future as the state deals with the effects of climate change.

“I think this one concept, because it is so critical and unpopular, will need to be done in an obligatory way rather than just as guidance,” Commission chair Dayna Bochco said.

Bochco noted the commission had “obviously been struggling” with balancing property owners’ interests and public trust interests to maintain public access to the coast as the sea level rises, pointing to seawall permits as a recent challenge.

Commissioner Donne Brownsey echoed Bochco’s statements, saying: “There is going to be an incredible amount of conflict over the implementation of these strategies.”

Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth said the commissioners “hit the nail on the head in regard to the conflicts we will see, adding: “This will be one of the most significant land use challenges we’ve ever faced.”

The executive director suggested there needs to be collaboration across state agencies and local governments “to push out the message that this is the new reality.”

Ainsworth said disclosure statements might need to accompany residential project approvals that inform homeowners “you might not be in this house for the long-term” if sea-level rise ousts them.

Commission staffers went as far as to suggest government takings of private property could be considered “takings by the forces of nature.”

The commission is expected to adopt formal adaptation policy guidelines this fall.


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