Editor’s note: The Daily Press is launching a new weekly series, Primer. Each Saturday, our reporters will explain an institution, law, issue or trend that impacts Santa Monica. To suggest a topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The California coast is one of the most lucrative real estate markets on the planet. But if you want to build anything within sight of the ocean, you need a permit from the California Coastal Commission, a quasi-judicial agency unlike any other in the United States.
The Coastal Commission was established by ballot initiative in 1972 and the California Coastal Act of 1976 enshrined its power to regulate the coast in perpetuity. The 12 voting members of the commission are appointed by the governor and the state legislature.
The commission’s mission is to protect, conserve, restore and enhance the environment of the coastal zone, which typically extends 1,000 yards inland from the ocean. In urban areas, its jurisdiction is smaller; in Santa Monica, the commission grants final approval to projects west of 4th Street between Adelaide Drive and Pico Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard from Pico Boulevard to city limits.
In addition to environmental preservation, the California Coastal Act charges the commission with maintaining public access to the ocean. The public is allowed to use any land below the mean high tide line — in other words, anyone may walk on wet sand — and everyone is supposed to be able to access the water every thousand feet down the coast. The commission has a history of fining homeowners for restricting beach access.
Maintaining public access also includes preserving low- and middle-income housing and accommodations in the coastal zone. The commission can’t set prices for hotels or homes, but it can deny applications to replace affordable lodging with luxury retreats.
The commission hasn’t shied away from that responsibility. Last year, it fined a Santa Monica hotel $15.5 million — the largest fine in the commission’s history — because the owners built an upscale hotel without the proper permits.
In 2009, the Farzam family applied for a coastal development permit to build a moderately priced motel to replace their two aging motels on Ocean Avenue, but instead built a luxury hotel where rooms and suites range between $300 and $800 per night.
After a legal battle and years of negotiations, the commission fined the Farzam’s company and struck a deal to set aside 86 rooms in the Shore Hotel at $180 per night so the hotel could legally remain open. The rooms are intended to replace the 86 rooms that were lost when the motels were demolished.
The Coastal Commission may wield significant power over developers, but it has never fully recovered from Republican Gov. George Deukmejian slashing its budget and staff in the 1980s. Before Deukmejian starting draining the agency’s resources in the name of preserving local coastal control, it had a $37 million budget in today’s dollars and 212 staffers. By 2017, its budget had shrunk to $22.4 million and it employed 159 people.
While it is now operating with a $28.8 million budget and 172 authorized employees, the commission still lacks the staff and funding to resolve all of its open enforcement cases, help every beach community create a Local Coastal Program to guide development and ensure that developers comply with the conditions of the coastal development permits it issues.