How the future of the California coast could be shaped by a homeowners group lawsuit

The outcome of a bitter legal dispute in which a tiny group of homeowners is fighting to construct a sea wall that the state has refused to authorize could determine the future of California’s coast.

The state’s 1,100 miles of shoreline are in danger of being eaten away by rising sea levels, which might also wipe out a large number of the houses and commercial buildings that have been constructed along the shore.

The settlement of a dispute between regulators and homeowners could help clarify who is permitted to protect their properties from this encroaching danger in a case that has pitted public beaches against private property rights. This could have a significant impact on the future geography of the state’s bluffs, beaches, and coastal communities.

The director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Charles Lester, told The Hill that it will “affect in a significant way how people think about the rights they may have to build sea walls and shoreline structures.”

The matter at hand is whether a group of people who live on the bluffs in Half Moon Bay, a city in San Mateo County that is roughly 20 miles south of San Francisco, should be permitted to construct sea walls to shield their houses from the effects of erosion.

In November 2018, the petitioners submitted an application to construct a public access staircase to replace the current emergency boulders and a 257-foot concrete sea wall.

According to a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News, their plan aimed to save a sewer line, a nearby apartment complex, a stretch of the California Coastal Trail, and the condos owned by the Casa Mira Homeowners Association. However, despite internal staff recommendations to accept the full concept, the Coastal Commission denied the requests in the summer of 2019 and only permitted a 50-foot sea wall for the apartment complex.

The homeowners then filed a lawsuit, which was ultimately approved by a county court judge four years after the initial refusal. But in September, the agency filed an appeal, deepening the legal maze.

The homeowners argued that California law gave them the right to defend their property, and the judge agreed, ruling in their favor.

However, Lester and other specialists in coastal policy caution that erecting sea walls or other defenses has additional risks. Furthermore, the Coastal Commission emphasized the necessity of safeguarding the state’s coast in general from a regulatory standpoint.

The commission’s legislative director, Sarah Christie, stated via email that the organization is unable to comment on ongoing legal matters. Sea level rise, she emphasized, is now “the real force that’s shaping the coast.”

In order to maintain livable coastal towns, public beaches, and healthy coastal ecosystems in California, Christie stated, “The Coastal Commission is focused on supporting coastal resiliency.”

Managing “chronic loss”

According to a study conducted this past spring under the direction of Vitousek, the coast of California is generally so fragile that, if the process continues unchecked, between 24 and 75 percent of the state’s beaches could completely disintegrate by the end of the century.

A quarter of the coastline might be submerged by a mere one meter of sea level rise, and three meters of increase could completely destroy three quarters of these beaches, according to a study conducted in collaboration with the University of New South Wales in Sydney and the USGS.

According to independent study from California State University, eliminating most beaches would not only make environmental justice issues worse but also cause them to vanish.

A claim to the defense of one’s property?

Section 30235 of the 1976 California Coastal Act, which permits natural coastal modifications if they “protect existing structures” from the risks of erosion, is important to the Half Moon Bay case.

The Coastal Commissioners decided that the Casa Mira residents Association condos, the sewage line, and the coastal trail were not entitled to a sea wall as the residents proposed under that condition when they rejected the initial building request in July 2019.

Judge Marie S. Weiner of San Mateo County Superior Court found in favor of the homeowners in her 2023 ruling, citing Section 30235 as “the key issue” up for consideration. She said the agency was trivializing private property and letting it “deteriorate and collapse,” calling the language “unambiguous.”

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