Coastal Activist Primer: Intro to the Coastal Act

  • Posted on 1 November 2021
  • By Seth Weisbord
Often Sierra Club members become concerned about conservation issues along the coastline of LA and Orange Counties. Usually, this means having some knowledge about the California Coastal Act and California Coastal Commission is useful. This article is part of a planned series of articles and videos/podcasts to help those new to coastal activism quickly come up to speed on how to be effective in protecting our coastal environment.
Introduction to the Coastal Act
At 1,100 miles, the California coastline, including island coasts, and with 76 miles in Los Angeles County and 42 in Orange County, is among the country’s most scenic and iconic, stretching from picturesque sea villages in the north to world-famous beaches in the south.
Alarmed that private development was cutting off public access to the coast, and catalyzed by a huge oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Californians in 1972 passed a voter initiative called the Coastal Conservation Initiative (Prop 20).
In 1976, in response to pressure applied by Prop 20, the state legislature enacted detailed legislation in the form of the Coastal Act, making the Coastal Commission originally created under Prop 20 a permanent agency with broad jurisdiction to regulate natural resource use and development in the Coastal Zone.
Basically, the Coastal Act guides how land along the coast of California is developed or is protected from development. Activities that qualify as “development”, broadly defined by the Coastal Act, include such things as construction of buildings, division of land, mining of materials, among others.
Generally speaking, a person or entity wishing to develop in the Zone needs a permit to do so issued by the Commission or a local city that operates under a commission-approved plan called a “Local Coastal Plan” (LCP). The Coastal Act applies to businesses, private individuals, and public agencies, including state and local entities, and, to a significant extent, federal agencies.
The sixteen-member Commission is tasked with hearing applications for development, issuing or denying permits for development, or possibly issuing permits with conditions.
The Commission’s decision-making process is guided by policies and standards in the Coastal Act. These address such development issues as shoreline public access and recreation, lower-cost visitor accommodations, terrestrial and marine habitat protection, visual resources, landform alteration, agricultural lands, commercial fisheries, industrial use, water quality, offshore oil and gas development, transportation, development design, power plants, ports, and public works.
The Coastal Zone spans the length of the California coastline, along with its island coasts, and with the exception of San Francisco Bay, which operates under its own development authority. On land, the Coastal Zone varies in width from several hundred feet in highly urbanized areas and up to five miles in certain rural areas—offshore, the Zone includes a three-mile-wide band of the ocean.
In addition to the Coastal Commission, the law may be carried out by Commission-approved Local Coastal Plans (LCPs), working at the municipal and county levels. LCPs are the basic planning tools that carry out the partnership between State and local governments in their shared stewardship of the coast.
It’s a goal of the Commission that each coastal community has a Local Certified Plan, so all decisions can be local while still conforming to the Coastal Act.

Seth Weisbord J.D., is a new member of the Angeles Chapter Communications Committee with a focus on helping to develop Grassroots Journalism and Grassroots Activism Outreach. Join our team on Monday evenings. Learn more here



Coastal Erosion is actually the big problem and the Coastal Commission is confused and doing nothing. Let’s save the coast.

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