The California Coastal Commission has a legacy of protecting the state’s beaches, bluffs and surf breaks, and the public’s right to access and enjoy them. The ActCoastal campaign has helped keep it that way for more than 20 years.
In 1972 the voters of California passed Proposition 20, which first established the California Coastal Commission. In 1976 the California Legislature passed the Coastal Act, making the Coastal Commission a permanent, independent state agency with broad authority to regulate coastal development, protect the coastal environment, and protect the public’s right to access and enjoy coastal resources.
In 2016, California lawmakers passed legislation (AB 2616) – sponsored by environmental justice organizations Azul and The City Project – to authorize the California Coastal Commission to consider environmental injustices when making permit decisions. It also incorporated existing non-discrimination and civil rights laws into the Coastal Act, and required the Governor to appoint an Environmental Justice Commissioner.
In 2019, the Commission unanimously adopted its landmark Environmental Justice Policy to advance coastal access and equity by integrating the principles of environmental justice into its decision making. This established a framework for the Coastal Commission to identify and analyze the potential impacts from proposed projects on historically excluded and low-income communities, as well as other people who are disproportionately affected by pollution, environmental degradation, and other health and safety hazards. It also set guiding principles across nine key areas, such as respecting Tribal concerns; meaningful engagement with communities affected by project proposals; climate change; and public health. The policy also established the Commission’s overarching goal to “achieve more meaningful engagement, equitable process, effective communication, and stronger coastal protection benefits that are accessible to everyone.”
The public has benefited immeasurably from having this comprehensive legal framework and dedicated agency oversight of coastal public trust resources.
At its best, the Coastal Commission works with local and regional governments, public stakeholders, developers, scientists and Native American Tribes to ensure that development permits and land use plans align with coastal protection and equitable public access. However, such decisions are never a given, especially when narrow private interests stand to reap windfall profits from coastal development such as luxury hotels and condos, or large industrial facilities.
In the wake of mounting concerns that special interests had accrued inordinate influence with Coastal Commission members, ActCoastal was formed in 2002 to track and publicize commissioner voting records and spotlight the agency’s decisions and actions on issues with major implications for environmental protection and public access.
For without true Coastal Commission independence and transparency, the California coast would be a much different place than it is today: with curtailed public access, more exclusive, private development, less open space and wildlife habitat along beaches and bluff tops, and persistent, unaddressed inequities in who gets to enjoy and benefit from California’s beaches, bluffs, waves and waters.
Thanks to over 50 years of Coastal Commission stewardship, the California coast remains accessible to the public and ecologically vibrant.
Since 1972, Commission votes supported by strong engagement by the public have resulted in an extraordinary record of environmental protection and the expansion of the public’s right and ability to access California beaches and other coastal spaces.
The following chronology of successes show how the Commission can:
- Preserve and expand public access and recreational opportunities - find access-ways with the YourCoast app
- Preserve cultural resources of significance to California’s Native American Tribes, and protect access to coastal sites of importance for traditional practices
- Protect threatened and endangered species, sensitive habitats, and coastal water quality
- Reduce the risk of oil spills and other industrial pollution
- Help communities adapt to sea level rise and other climate change impacts
Below are a few examples of how our coastline has been protected in the decades since the passage of Proposition 20 and the establishment of the Coastal Commission.
City of Pacifica
In 2023, following years of campaigning by advocates such as Brown Girl Surf and City Surf Project to advance the rights of non-profit, equity-focused organizations to operate surf schools on the Linda Mar public beach alongside commercial operations, the Coastal Commission unanimously approved a first-of-its kind permitting framework developed in collaboration with city officials that authorizes this crucial activity for connecting excluded communities to coastal recreation.
On May 12, 2022, the Coastal Commission unanimously denied a coastal development permit for the Brookfield-Poseidon Huntington Beach Desalination Plant– a $1.4 billion-dollar industrial project proposed as a new, for-profit civil water source for Orange County—citing potential impacts to the region’s environmental justice communities and marine life, and the project’s sea level rise vulnerability. The Stop Poseidon Coalition, an alliance of environmental, ocean, and social justice organizations, led in identifying and publicizing the range of social and environmental impacts from the proposal, and included Azul, California Coastal Protection Network, California Coastkeeper Alliance, OakView ComUNIDAD, Orange County Coastkeeper, the Society of Native Nations, and the Surfrider Foundation. The facility was proposed to take in 50 million gallons per day of seawater from the open ocean, and discharge environmentally harmful concentrated brine near a state marine protected area. In explaining their votes against the proposal, most of the 11 commissioners cited the project’s contravention of the Coastal Commission’s Environmental Justice Policy, including its expected regressive effects on water prices for the region’s households and small businesses, along with concerns about impacts to coastal natural resources. This helped establish the decision as an important precedent for future Commission decision-making.
In 2020, the Commission denied a proposed 1,200+ foot long, 25+ foot wide seawall by the Niguel Shores Community Association. The revetment would have protected private homes at Niguel Shores Community Association at the expense of the public beach space and been paid for by Orange County taxpayers.
Half Moon Bay
In 2019, the Coastal Commission restored public access to the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay. The hotel opened in 2001 and never maintained the public coastal access infrastructure that had been required as part of its development permit. In enforcement orders, the hotel operators also agreed to an administrative fine of $1.6 million, which will help develop a segment of the California Coastal Trail in the area, further expanding public coastal access.
In 2018, the Commission ordered the removal of an illegal seawall at Victoria Beach in Laguna Beach. New development and major remodels are prohibited from relying on shoreline armoring under the Coastal Act. Seawalls and other types of hard armoring along the coastline accelerate beach erosion and result in the eventual loss of sandy beach as seas rise (for example, see this 2015 Stanford University report).
In 2017, the Coastal Commission’s enforcement division issued a Cease and Desist Order to Monterey’ CEMEX sand mine that was operating without a permit and causing record high erosion rates in the county. A settlement agreement
required CEMEX to cease sand mining on the property after three years, restore the property and ensure that the property be transferred to a public or nonprofit agency for management upon closure of the mine.
Santa Barbara County
In 2017, Coastal Commission enforcement efforts resulted in a remarkable win for the public after lengthy negotiations regarding unpermitted development activities on the Cojo and Jalama Ranches, which occupy an 11-mile swath of coastline on either side of Point Conception. As part of the settlement, the owners (an investment group that include Boston-based hedge fund the Baupost Group) agreed to transfer approximately 36 acres of coastal property south of Jalama Beach to Santa Barbara’s County Parks division to expand the campground and park area, and to pay $500,000 to the Commission’s violation remediation account, which flows back into new infrastructure for public access.
In 2016, the Commission issued a $4.1 million administrative penalty to reconcile a property owner’s unlawful blocking of the only public access from the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu’s Las Flores beach. This was the first civil penalty issued by the Commission, a power granted to the agency by the state legislature in 2014. With this decision, Commissioners sent a message that California will not tolerate attempts to convert its public beaches into private playgrounds.
San Mateo County
In 2015, in the wake of concerns about impacts to beach access and the environment, the Commission exercised its authority to require the organizers of the “Titans of Mavericks” surf competition to apply for a Coastal Development Permit. During the permit hearing, the non-profit organization Surf Equity raised the issue that the event, though occurring on public trust resources of the Coastal Zone, had excluded women since its inception in 1999, despite numerous women athletes who were well-qualified and eager to compete. Following a 7-4 vote, the Commission granted a one-year permit for the event, under the condition that women participants be included going forward. This decision established a precedent for future equity-driven decision-making. Subsequent advocacy and permit decisions in 2016 and 2018 resulted in requirements for a dedicated women’s division including multiple heats and equal pay, and in 2021, a requirement for an equal number of competitors in each gendered division.
Santa Monica Mountains
In 2014, the Commission certified the Santa Monica Mountains Land Use Plan (LUP) which covers 52,000 acres of popular recreational lands known for steep rugged mountains, extensive native habitat and wildlife, and for containing the largest urban national park in the U.S. The LUP will protect the integrity of this region by preserving scenic views, coastal watershed quality, and wildlands while allowing small-scale organic farming to continue.
The Commission discovered intentional and unpermitted development on a property which resulted in two Coastal Act violations in 2005 and 2007 for the destruction of sensitive habitat at Hobo Aliso Ridge. In 2010, the Commission issued a Cease and Desist Order to restore 75 acres and preserve the area in perpetuity.
San Onofre State Beach
In 2008 the Commission rejected a 6‐lane toll road that would have cut through San Onofre State Beach. The project would have devastated wildlife habitat of several threatened and endangered species, polluted one of the last unspoiled watersheds in the region, closed 60% of the state park, reduced public access, altered watershed dynamics potentially impairing the waves at Trestles, and decreased affordable, overnight coastal camping.
Malibu and Oxnard
In 2007, the Commission ruled against the largest mining corporation in the world–BHP Billiton–which had proposed to build a floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast of Malibu and Oxnard. This massive industrial facility, three football fields long and 14 stories high, would have received and stored LNG from tanker ships that would have arrived at least two to three times a week from Asia and Australia. The terminal and its tankers would have emitted more than 200 tons of smog‐producing air pollution every year, violated federal laws designed to protect public health and safety, and threatened the habitat and migration routes of whales, seabirds, turtles, and other marine wildlife, all while locking the state into decades of new fossil fuel burning and additional carbon pollution.
In 2007, Commissioners resoundingly rejected a massive development in the Del Monte Forest that would have cut down more than 15,000 native Monterey pine trees to make way for a new 18‐hole golf course, 160 new hotel rooms, 33 residential lots, a golf driving range, 60 employee housing units and new roads and trails.
The Commission acted to protect eelgrass and other important estuarine resources within Humboldt Bay while allowing new pier development and modifications to existing wharves. This was achieved by requiring construction activities to be performed outside of eelgrass beds and other sensitive habitat, and requiring the creation of new wetland habitat to mitigate unavoidable impacts to such resources.
In July 2001, the Commission facilitated transfer of an open space easement on property adjacent to Lake Earl to the County of Del Norte for open space and wetlands protection.
In March 2000, the Commission ensured protection of 714 acres of open space and continuation of agricultural use on the Giacomini Ranch on the east shore of Tomales Bay north of Point Reyes Station by facilitating the transfer of development rights to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.
San Mateo County
The Commission acted to protect scenic view-sheds and habitat for endangered species, by reducing the size of several large homes proposed for the area, screening them from public view, and rerouting access roads to avoid habitat of red‐legged frogs and other wildlife.
Los Angeles County
Hundreds of acres of open space have been preserved in the Santa Monica Mountains as a result of major permit decisions and through the Transfer Development Credit program.
Bolsa Chica Wetlands
The Commission helped a multi‐agency task force to implement one of the largest salt marsh restoration projects in state history. In 2000, the Commission ruled that a proposed development had to be limited to the upper half (“upper bench”) of the Bolsa Chica mesa because the lower half (“lower bench”) was too valuable as habitat.
San Diego County
Dedication of 200‐acre Agua Hedionda Lagoon Preserve and preservation of expanded upland open space/habitat preserve in connection with Carlsbad LCP amendment for the Kelly Ranch Master Plan area.
As a result of Commission denial of a permit for a barn and horse corral involving fill of wetlands on a site adjacent to Escondido Creek, the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy with Ford Foundation funding acquired the site.
San Luis Obispo & Monterey Counties
Following review by the Coastal Commission, the U.S. Navy withdrew its 2001 proposal to develop a fighter jet bombing range in Big Sur at Fort Hunter Liggett. The proposed 2,820 annual sorties would have adversely affected public access and wilderness recreation and degraded environmentally sensitive habitats for species including California condors, sea otters, brown pelicans, seabirds, and eagles. The Navy instead shifted its training flights to other, existing ranges.
In 2000 the Commission required Irvine Company to revamp the drainage system for its 2,500 unit Newport Coast luxury golf development because runoff was directly entering the nearby watershed and degrading the water quality and the beach at Crystal Cove, a treasured California state park. Separately, in 2003, the Commission approved a restoration plan for the Crystal Cove Historic District, including renovation of its unique, historic beachfront cottages by California State Parks, to serve as low cost overnight coastal rentals. The Commission’s approval included conditions to improve public beach accessibility, and protect a large expanse of coastal sage habitat.
In November 1999, the Commission facilitated the acceptance by the Del Monte Forest Foundation of an open space/conservation easement covering 20 acres of native Monterey Pine forest, freshwater wetland/riparian corridor, and sand dunes. The Commission has also helped prepare the Coast Highway Management Plan for the Big Sur coast. This plan will help keep State Route 1 open for residents and visitors and will help protect coastal resources, even when landslides or other natural disasters occur in the Big Sur area.
In January of 1998 the Commission rejected a proposal by the Hearst Corporation and the County of San Luis Obispo to build four resorts including a destination hotel and golf course at San Simeon Point on the Hearst Ranch. The resorts would have impacted endangered species and sensitive habitats, degraded unparalleled natural, scenic viewsheds, reduced public access to- and along the Central Coast, and induced additional commercial development on open space and agricultural lands.