The Forty-Year-Old Statute: Unintended Consequences of the Coastal Act and How They Might Be Redressed

  • December 2016
  • 36 Stan.Envtl.L.J. 63
  • Article

Forty years ago, the California Legislature enacted the Coastal Act to protect the coastline and to fortify changes sought by the voter initiative that established the Coastal Commission. While overwhelmingly successful, the implementation of California’s Coastal Act has produced certain unintended consequences that limit its efficacy. An apparent misapplication of a key term in the Act, abuse of permitting exemptions, and unforeseen climatic changes to the coast have fostered these undesirable outcomes. This article first describes three key unintended consequences and their presumed intended applications: use of the term “existing” in the Act, exemption of certain permitting processes permissible under the Act, and implementation of emergency coastal development permits. Next, the article investigates how these aspects of the Act have been interpreted in practice and then offers potential solutions to address these inadvertent outcomes. In the wake of a changing climate, rising seas, and increasingly devastating storms, now is the time to redress these unintended consequences to ensure the Coastal Act—and California’s coastline—remain resilient.

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