A Look at The California Coastal Commission

Steffi Puerto, EcoNews Journalism Intern

The California Coastal Commission has celebrated 50 years aimed at environmental justice, political activism, and local and state coastal information to better support California residents on issues related to the coast. The Commission has dedicated hard work to regulating development across the state’s 1,100-mile coastline and ensuring equal access to the coast. 

The establishment of the California Coastal Commission occurred in 1972 through the voter initiative of Proposition 20. Proposition 20 established the public’s right to access the state’s coastal tidelands and created what we know now as the California Coastal Commission. It also paved the way for the Coastal Act and embracing coastal preservation.

John Dunlap is a former California Assemblyman and Senator who was initially the first to introduce the bill into the legislature after attending a Democratic caucus where former Sonoma County environmental activist Bill Kortum informed him that there was a 5,200-home project called The Sea Ranch Development being proposed. This development extended from the Northern Sonoma coast to the south of the Gualala coast and was planned to be subdivided without letting the public on the shores, according to  The Press Democrat.

“This he thought was wrong and I agreed with him, I told him that I would do something about it and that is where we started,” said Dunlap in a later interview. 

Dunlap began by meeting with Alan Sieroty and discussing the importance of the bill, including ensuring that when the coastal property was divided, public access was included within the development plans. Sieroty agreed and became the lead co-author of the bill. 

Together they hosted a subcommittee hearing in Santa Rosa on the subject of coastal protection legislation to create conversation and awareness of the bill’s legislation. Yet it didn’t go as planned as the subdivision was still being handled without public access. Dunlap was persistent about the bill passing. The legislation was first introduced in 1968 but was defeated. This happened again in 1969. Eventually, in 1972, the Coastal Alliance proceeded with the successful Proposition 20 campaign, which created the Coastal Commission and led to the passage of the Coastal Act of 1976. Voters passed the act with 55 percent in favor.

The passing of Proposition 20 allowed for the establishment of the California Coastal Commission. In 1976 the state agency was made permanent by the legislature with the addition of the California Coastal Act. This act provides guidelines on how the land along the coast of California is developed or protected from said development, focusing on the importance of public access to the coast and the preservation of the coast and biodiversity within the area. 

As of today, the California Coastal Commission works to provide a wide range of information to residents of coastal communities, including accessible information to property owners, local government, and citizens. It provides bilingual information and media content to visually demonstrate the importance of its work through themes of global warming, coastal conservation, and much more. 

As residents of Humboldt County and living on the coast, coastal protection projects are happening all the time. Some of the local developments that will go before the Coastal Commission will be an offshore wind energy project that will require new docks and warehouses in Samoa where the wind turbines will be built. There are also upcoming plans to upgrade the Eureka Wastewater Treatment Facility which is vulnerable to rising sea levels in the long term, but in need of improvements to protect water quality in the short term.

Jen Kalt is the director of Humboldt Baykeeper and has been directly following the Coastal Commission for over 15 years. 

 “Coastal cities and counties also implement the Coastal Act through local coastal programs that include policies tailored to specific areas, as long as they are consistent with the Coastal Act. Some local examples are limits on signs and night lighting (Eureka), a cap on vacation rentals (Trinidad), and an exemption for single-family homes (McKinleyville).” Kalt added that many Local Coastal Programs are very outdated, though some are in the process of being updated. “Many local government agencies opposed the Coastal Act, but the voters approved it by a 10-point margin (55.15-45.85%),” Kalt said.

 The California Coastal Commission and Coastal Act’s mission is to ensure equitable access to the coast. The California Coastal Trail is a general example of accessibility for all. Kalt explains that the trail is about 50 percent built, and will eventually go the entire length of the state, from Oregon to Baja California. The Coastal Act requires local jurisdictions to identify an alignment for the California Coastal Trail in their Local Coastal Programs.

 “The Eureka Waterfront Trail, the Humboldt Bay Trail, and the Hammond Trail are local examples. The next planned sections will go south to College of the Redwoods and north to Trinidad,” Kalt said. 

 Although there has been accessibility provided through the trails, there have also been concerns raised about how the proposed projects create inequitable access for low-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups. These communities have faced disproportionate social and physical barriers that disconnect them from coastal access and recreational opportunities. 

 Equitable access to coastal access and recreational opportunities for everyone has not been addressed because of practices of social, economic, and physical discrimination in the use of land and economic policies in our state.

 According to The Coastal Commission Staff Report about the Eureka portion of the coastal trail, “Spatial analysis of 2010 Census data shows a majority of Californians (70.9%) live within 62 miles of the coast, but populations closest to the coast are disproportionately white, affluent, and older than those who live farther inland. However, wherever the CCT is located, it provides equitable access to all communities, including disadvantaged ones. Ensuring maximum and equitable public access to the California coastline as required by the Coastal Act public access policies cited above is consistent with the environmental justice principles reflected in the Coastal Act.” 

 The State Legislature removed the Coastal Act’s protections for affordable housing in the 1980s. Kalt added that ultimately, the best way to ensure coastal access for all is to restore protections for affordable housing in coastal areas.