An outbreak in San Francisco could devastate California’s historic coastal protections

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 26: Ocean Beach and the Outer Sunset district are seen from Fort Funston on June 26, 2023 in San Francisco, California. A recent study from the US Geological Survey concludes that the model estimates that 25 to 70 percent of California beaches could be completely eroded by 2100 under sea level rise scenarios of 0.5 to 3.0 meters, respectively. (Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
(Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

An outbreak in San Francisco could devastate California’s historic coastal protections

Op-Ed, California Politics

Joel Reynolds and Tom Soto

February 26, 2024

If the California coast is a government asset worth trillions of dollars and why is the state agency that has successfully protected that asset for fifty years being attacked? The response to unnecessary delays is unwarranted. Yet California’s exceptional history of coastal protection is in greater jeopardy in the halls of our Capitol today than it has been for generations.

Like water flowing downhill, California’s incomparable coast has always been a magnet for development. With this in mind, California voters in 1972 overwhelmingly approved Proposition 20, a ballot initiative that set in motion the 1976 California Coastal Act. Unlike South Florida, the Jersey Shore or other coastal areas developed through privatization, the California coast was given special protection by law: the coastal area would not be developed as an enclave for the wealthy, but for everyone’s use, with amenities


for protecting its natural resources and its breathtaking beauty.

The California Coastal Commission was created to enforce the law with a specific mission to balance the needs of the ecosystem with the need for public access and economic development, including affordable housing. It works like this: local jurisdictions come up with coastal plans that the commission must approve. However, once a plan is in place, development permits are handled by the city, municipality or county

These decisions can be appealed to and by the committee.

Over the years, the Coastal Commission has successfully defended public beach access in Malibu, Half Moon Bay, Carlsbad and other cities. It has helped preserve state parks, coastal open space and the beach itself by denying oil drilling permits, more than one luxury resort, an LNG port (in Oxnard) and a toll road (at San Onofre Beach ). In 2019, it charged a developer nearly $15.6 million for replacing two budget hotels along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica with a boutique hotel without a permit.

Predictably, this process has often been the bull’s-eye of critics of the Coastal Act, and while the rationale may vary from moment to moment, their goal remains the same: weaken commission oversight and return full control of land use to local governments.

Today, the low supply of affordable housing along the coast is the basis for the attack. In the legislation introduced in January, aimed at solving unnecessary delays in granting permits in the coastal zone with a disproportionately low housing supply,


State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has proposed an unprecedented cut

of 23.5% of the coastal zone in San Francisco. Specifically, Senate Bill 951 would remove the commission from overseeing residential districts in western cities


, as well as a bit of Golden Gate Park. As the first significant reduction of the coastal area in more than forty years, this attack on the commission could set a dangerous precedent that could lead to similar cuts.

from San Diego to Santa Monica to Crescent City.

Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted overwhelmingly against SB 951, and a day later the Coastal Commission unanimously did the same.

The existential threat this legislation poses to the Coastal Act and the entire California coast is undeniable. Among the commission’s many responsibilities involved, SB 951 ignores the agency’s vital role in planning for adaptation to sea level rise along San Francisco’s increasingly vulnerable coast. And it doesn’t appear to be a mere coincidence that the excluded area includes land proposed for a controversial 50-story condominium and commercial project in the condominiums of the Outer Sunset neighborhood north of the San Francisco Zoo.

The claim that the Coastal Commission is responsible for housing inequality in the coastal zone, while longstanding in rhetoric, is belied by the historical record. When the Coastal Act became law in 1976, that was indeed the case


that housing for low- and middle-income people should be protected, encouraged and, where possible, provided. The commission actively complied with, approved, or protected from demolition more than 7,100 affordable units between 1977 and 1981, and collected an estimated $2 million in catch-up fees to support affordable housing.

But in 1981, the state Legislature amended the Coastal Act to eliminate the commission’s affordable housing authority. Contrary to the claim of unnecessary delays in permitting on which SB 951 is based, only two coastal development permits in San Francisco have been appealed to the commission in 38 years. It is this amendment, and the fact that developers prefer to build high-quality projects, that has led to the current shortage of affordable housing in the coastal zone. As then-Coastal Commission Chairman Leonard Grote warned in 1981: Passing this bill would ensure that the opportunity to live near the coast remains the preserve of the wealthy. And that is true.

If increasing the supply of affordable housing near California’s coast is in fact the goal of SB 951, then restoring, not reducing, the commission’s authority is needed. It was a mistake in 1981 to revoke the commission’s authority to require that projects it approved include affordable housing, and it was a mistake in 2024 to expect that shrinking the coastal zone will right this injustice.

The California Coastal Commission has an extraordinary record of protecting California’s most valuable environmental and economic resource, and its regulatory role is as essential today as it has ever been. SB 951 would weaken, not advance, equal access to that resource, and threatens to erode, perhaps irrevocably, the nation’s most successful coastal management program.

Joel Reynolds is western director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica. Tom Soto is a former alternate member of the California Coastal Commission and board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council NRDC.


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