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The California Coastal Commission Announces the Release of Draft Sea-Level Rise Policy Guidance
Susan Hansch, Lesley Ewing, Hilary Papendick, Carey Batha, and Kelsey Ducklow
The California Coastal Commission recently released a Draft Sea Level-Rise Policy Guidance designed to assist local governments, permit applicants, and other interested parties in efforts to address sea-level rise. The draft document includes a list of guiding principles for considering sea-level rise in California’s coastal zone, a description of best available science for California sea-level rise projections, background information on a number of adaptation strategies and methods and a number of other helpful resources. Importantly, the document also provides step-by-step guidance for addressing sea-level rise in Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) and Coastal Development Permits (CDPs).
The Draft Guidance Document is currently available for public review through January 15, 2014. The Commission eagerly seeks input on the document, which can be downloaded at Further detail on the report is provided below.
A Call to Action on Climate Change
Governor Brown has issued a “call to action” on climate change, including planning for the impacts of global sea-level rise.  In support of this call, the California Coastal Commission has released a draft Sea-Level Rise Policy Guidance for California’s coastal communities.
Protecting Economy and Environment through Effective Planning
Our coastline is facing increased risks to coastal development, critical infrastructure, coastal habitats, and recreational beach resources due to sea-level rise related impacts including accelerated shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and extreme storm events. The California Coastal Commission and local governments play a critically important role planning for and managing coastal resources and development in the face of these hazards. The Commission’s draft sea-level guidance is a comprehensive resource to help coastal communities prepare for the challenges of sea-level rise through effective planning and management of coastal development.  The guidance proposes a framework to help local governments update their LCPs to address sea-level rise. It also contains technical assistance for helping the development community avoid and minimize coastal hazard risks to new development, while continuing to protect important coastal resources such as local public beaches and scenic natural shorelines.
Using Best Science and Risk Management to Protect the Coast
The Commission’s draft guidance recommends using the best available science on global sea-level rise to plan for and protect community coastal development and resources at the local level. Expert projections are that sea level may rise by as much as 65 inches south of Cape Mendocino (56 inches to the north) by 2100.
Rising seas will accelerate coastal bluff and beach erosion, increase coastal flooding, and lead to stronger, more extreme coastal storm events. These coastal hazards will dramatically increase risks to important community development, infrastructure, public beaches and recreation areas, sensitive coastal wetlands and other natural shoreline resources.
The draft guidance provides information designed to help and encourage communities to update their LCPs with risk assessments and policies to better manage the anticipated increased coastal hazard risks due to sea-level rise. Updated local coastal planning, and a risk management approach, will help protect development and infrastructure and avoid or minimize impacts to coastal shoreline resources from unplanned and ad hoc hazard response.
Minimizing Risk and Protecting Resources through Adaptive Management
Specific draft guidance principles include:
  • Where feasible, avoid and minimize coastal hazard risks over the life of authorized developments through smart project siting and design
  • Account for the social and economic needs of the people of the state and assure priority for coastal-dependent and coastal-related development over other development
  • Avoid and minimize the adverse impacts of necessary hazard responses such as seawalls on public beach access and other sensitive shoreline resources, while protecting private property rights
  • Account for the potential future costs and impacts to public shoreline resources from new development in hazardous areas
  • Use adaptive planning measures and policies that better protect public beaches and natural shoreline processes, through “living shorelines” and “green infrastructure” and policies and incentives for long-term planned or managed retreat from hazard zones
  • Coordinate planning and regulatory decision making with appropriate state, local, and federal agencies. Support regional or sub-regional collaborative planning efforts
  • Maximize public participation in planning and regulatory processes
Specific Proposed Policy Guidance
The draft guidance synthesizes Coastal Act policies and Commission implementation of existing state law that addresses coastal hazards and which closely regulates both new development in hazard zones and the proposed construction of seawalls and other shoreline protective measures including:
  • Assure that siting and design of new development minimizes coastal hazard risks over the projected lifetime of the development without bluff retaining or shoreline protection devices that would substantially alter natural landforms along coastal bluffs and cliffs
  • Require that new development in hazardous shoreline areas record a “no future seawall” condition to assure compliance with the Coastal Act over the life of the development and include provisions to ensure structures are modified, relocated, or removed when they become threatened by natural hazards
  • Limit the construction of new shoreline structures to those necessary to protect existing development for its foreseeable life or public beaches in danger from erosion, consistent with state law
  • Limit redevelopment in hazardous areas to not increase non-conforming uses and provide for the eventual conversion of existing development to conforming uses
  • Minimize the environmental impacts of necessary shoreline structure development including by reducing beach encroachment and using designs that mimic natural shoreline features
  • Avoid or minimize the impacts of necessary shoreline structure on public beach access and recreation
  • Require that the unavoidable impacts of shoreline structures on public access, beaches, and other public trust coastal resources be fully mitigated in kind or with in-lieu fees
Public Comment
Commission staff is now seeking input on the Draft Sea-level Rise Policy Guidance. To download the document, please visit: . Comments can be submitted via email to, by U.S. mail to 45 Fremont Street, Suite 2000, SF, CA 94105, or orally at Commission public hearings in November, December 2013 and/or January 2014. Please send your comments as soon as possible, and no later than Wednesday, January 15, 2014.

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