In Defense of California’s Coast

The Environmental Law Clinic recently took another step to defend the California coast against shortsighted development protections. Representing Surfrider Foundation, the Clinic joined the City of Solana Beach to defend City policies that encourage public access and restrict the use of seawalls and other shoreline protective devices.

Many homes have been built at the edge of a fragile, 80-foot-high bluff along the City’s 1.7 mile-long coastline.

Shoreline protective devices, which encompass a range of coastal armoring structures including seawalls and bluff retention devices, may offer short-term protection from erosion for coastal homeowners. However, armoring also contributes to adverse impacts on the shoreline by accelerating the erosion and loss of beaches and bluffs. This poses significant long-term threats to coastal infrastructure, property, sensitive ecosystems, and public trust resources.

Acknowledging these impacts while respecting the private property rights of coastal homeowners, the City and California Coastal Commission developed a local coastal plan to guide responsible coastal development. The plan allows seawalls only under limited circumstances, such as imminent danger to primary structures, and requires mitigation fees for their construction.

After a hearing on the merits in San Diego Superior Court in November, Judge Casserly issued a ruling that upheld most of the provisions challenged by bluff-top homeowners. Although the Judge invalidated a prohibition on armoring to protect “accessory structures”– such as gazebos, pools, and tennis courts – and a restriction on building new stairways, he upheld several critical policies. These include: 1) a policy tying the life of a seawall to an existing structure and a prohibition on armoring for redeveloped structures; 2) mitigation fees; 3) deed restrictions prohibiting seawalls on new development; and 4) a policy requiring that private stairways be converted to public stairways if certain conditions are met. The ruling on these key provisions is a victory for Surfrider, the City, and the public.

Rose Stanley (JD ’16) briefed the case, and Angela Howe of Surfrider Foundation appeared at the merits hearing to support the City’s policies in the Local Coastal Plan. For more on the hazards of seawalls, check out this report or the Clinic’s 2015 amicus brief to the California Supreme Court.