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A Concerning Trend in the Legislature - Exemptions from the Coastal Act

Surfrider is currently neutral on three state bills that originally proposed to change the California Coastal Act. These bills are SB 951 (Weiner), SB 1077 (Blakesepear) and SB 1092 (Blakespear.) Surfrider, along with dozens of non-profit environmental and environmental justice partners, remain opposed to AB 2560 (Alvarez). All four bills are representative of a trend in the State Legislature that tries to address the lack of affordable housing along our coastline by proposing exemptions from the Coastal Act for various types of development.

Can we say, off the bat, that whack-a-moling bills that we disagree with isn’t our idea of fun? We would love to spend our time thinking creatively about how California policies can best prepare our thousand miles of coastline for rising seas, or how a unique bill can help welcome all people to the beach.Instead, we’re fighting bills that seek to address the State’s housing crisis in the Coastal Zone by proposing exemptions for development from Coastal Act review. California’s coast is too rich and white, and we want to address this exclusivity. More affordable housing in the Coastal Zone is sorely needed.  However, we disagree that the way to address the housing crisis in the Coastal Zone is by exempting classes of development from Coastal Act Review. 

First of all, for development exemptions to successfully add to California’s housing stock, we should be confident that the process that is being exempted is a current barrier to affordable housing. This is relevant in the case of AB 2560, which tries to exempt any development that helps local governments meet Density Bonus Law standards from Coastal Act review. However, the Commission has denied exactly zero density bonus projects — so exempting these projects from this type of review could potentially have no positive impact on housing. SB 951 and SB 1092 also originally both proposed exemptions for certain types of projects from the Coastal Act appeals process, but Commission data shows that the appeal process is not a clear barrier to project approvals (see more in our blog on SB 1092).

Second — if a project is going to skirt Coastal Act review for the important cause of contributing to affordable housing, then any bill that proposes this policy solution should include acceptable targets or mandates that ensure that the benefitting projects are actually used for affordable housing. SB 1077 proposed to make it easier to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)  in the Coastal Zone for instance, but doesn’t guarantee that those units will actually be used for housing (as opposed to yoga studios.) Without such built-in standards, the bills we saw could make it easier to develop along the coastline, but not necessarily in a way that will contribute to housing and definitely not in a way that preserves coastal resources protections.  These types of bills also send the message to the State Legislature that exempting development from the Coastal Act isn’t a big deal — when in fact, undermining the Coastal Act is a very big deal.

The problem with these bills is not just that they 'may not be effective for housing.' If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: The Coastal Act is the state’s bedrock coastal access and protection law. It's the reason our coastline is publicly accessible, unlike many parts of Jersey and Miami shorelines, and it’s why sensitive ecosystems like wetlands and intertidal zones still exist in light of so many development threats. Therefore, we do not support undermining the Coastal Act, a well-understood law that has for so long benefitted all Californians, for bills that can’t show how they’d ultimately benefit the public. We also maintain that affordable housing opportunities should not be seen as mutually exclusive from coastal resource and access protections - a diversity of Californians should be able to access and live along our coastline; and we should be able to maintain its sensitive ecosystems and healthy beaches.

Surfrider therefore strongly supports reinforcement of the Coastal Act with policies that proactively address inequities — for instance policies that empower the Coastal Commission to require, or local governments to provide, a certain percentage of affordable housing in the Coastal Zone. Defending scraps of the landmark, voter-approved Coastal Act that has kept our beloved beaches, sensitive tidepools, and world-famous waves intact for so long isn’t a good use of our passion for coastal access and protection. We hope to work with the Legislature towards more productive solutions.