Fresh batch of YIMBY housing bills clash with coastal protections (again)

Waves break near beach homes in Malibu on Dec. 28, 2023. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP Photo

In summary
After a legislative victory last year, pro-housing legislators and advocates want to strip the California Coastal Commission of more authority in order to spur housing development.

Last year, state lawmakers broke from tradition by not including an exception for the California coast in a major housing law.

That deliberate omission came despite opposition from the California Coastal Commission — the voter-created state agency tasked since 1976 with scrutinizing anything that gets built, demolished, dug, divvied up, fixed, tamped down or clear cut within the California Coastal Zone. A stretch of land that grazes the entirety of California’s 840-mile coast, the zone reaches inland from high tide, 1,000 feet at its narrowest and five miles at its thickest.

“Once you start exempting classes of development from the Coastal Act,” Sarah Christie, the commission’s legislative director, warned CalMatters at the time, “there will be no shutting that barn door.”

Sure enough, a small herd of bills now trotting through the Legislature would further erode the commission’s long-guarded authority in the interest of spurring more housing on some of California’s most exclusive, valuable and tightly regulated real estate.

The bills — all by Democrats — take different tacks:

Together they show that many pro-housing legislators have taken heart from last year’s battle for the coast.

“The Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act have been a bit of a sacred cow and that has meant that it has been carved out of a lot of bills,” said Sen. Blakespear. Reevaluating whether that should be the case is “an area of an emerging focus from the Legislature.”

The commission is opposed to Wiener’s bill to redraw the San Francisco coastal boundary unless it’s dramatically amended. While it has yet to take formal positions on the remaining bills, it’s clear they don’t welcome this legislative trend.

“We’re troubled by the number of bills this year that seek to undermine the Coastal Act in the name of promoting housing,” said Coastal Commission Executive Director Kate Huckelbridge in a written statement. “We know from experience that abundant housing and coastal resource protection are not mutually exclusive.”

The commission is likely swimming against the political current. Last year’s apartment boosting bill squeaked through the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee over the opposition of its chair, Arletta Democratic Assemblymember Luz Rivas.

That committee has a new chair now: Culver City Democratic, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan, whom many expect to be more receptive to housing production bills. Ditto for the Assembly as a whole. The new Democratic speaker, Salinas’ Robert Rivas (no relation to Luz Rivas), has signaled that he wants the Legislature to do more than “chip around the corners” on housing policy.

What needs protection?

In recent years, state lawmakers have passed a slew of bills stripping local governments of their ability to delay housing projects. In most of California now, a developer interested in building most forms of affordable housing or accessory dwelling units need not conduct an extensive environmental analysis, submit to public meetings or win over skeptical elected officials.

But whatever authority local governments have lost, the Coastal Commission has retained. That puts the Coastal Zone, which is largely undeveloped but also includes significant chunks of urbanized beach communities including Santa Monica, Venice, Long Beach, San Diego and Santa Cruz  in a separate regulatory universe from the rest of the state.

And for good reason, say the commission and its defenders.

“Sea level rise is a serious threat along the coast and, in particular, in urbanized areas,” said Joel Reynolds, western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental legal advocacy nonprofit. “The Legislature was very aware of the fact that the scope of the (Coastal Act) was going to cover developed areas in addition to undeveloped areas. I think the case for that has only gotten stronger.”

In 1972 voters — concerned that encroaching development was cutting off coastal access for all Californians, and outraged by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill — passed an initiative to create the California Coastal Commission. Its rallying cry was “Save our Coast” — a determination to keep California’s shores from becoming a West Coast version of Miami Beach.

Within a few years the Legislature made the commission a permanent agency with broad authority to protect the state’s coastal resources. Those include the natural variety, such as wetlands, estuaries, creeks and the state’s chalky, erosion-prone bluffs, but also human-centric benefits such as public access, cheap accommodations, ocean views, social and cultural diversity, and aesthetics.

Pro-housing advocates argue that the law should apply less rigidly in places where dense development already exists.

“​​A 10-unit mixed income project in Venice Beach simply does not have the environmental salience as the Santa Barbara oil spill,” said Louis Mirante, a lobbyist with the Bay Area Council, which is co-sponsoring the Alvarez density bonus bill. “The Coastal Act is so dubious of housing it harms the environment.”

The environmental case for more coastal construction goes like this: More apartments in downtown Santa Cruz or Santa Monica will allow more people to live closer to the state’s job centers without the need for long commutes and air-conditioned sprawl.

That view represents a break from the kind of environmentalism that birthed the Coastal Act, in which restricting development and democratizing the planning process was seen as the best way to protect the Earth. As public concern over climate change has eclipsed that conservationist impulse, a fissure has emerged within both the California and national Democratic coalition between development skeptics and a new coalition of liberal ‘build-baby-build’-ers.

“The commission has very strong muscles to stop things, because that’s most of their job. But their muscles to help things happen are basically non-existent,” said Will Moore, policy director at Circulate San Diego, a transportation and housing advocacy nonprofit that is also co-sponsoring the Alvarez bill. As a result, the commissioners “protect us from a lot of bad things,” he said. “But housing is a good thing.”

He emphasized that the density bonus law, for example, only applies to places already zoned for multifamily housing: “Nobody is going out and building a skyscraper in the lagoon.”

Coastal elites

Just shy of 1 million people live in California’s coastal zone, according to an analysis provided to CalMatters by Nicholas Depsky, a climate change research consultant at the United Nations Development Programme.

That sliver of the state population — less than 2.5% — does not represent the state as a whole. Roughly two-thirds of those coastal dwellers are non-Hispanic whites, according to Depsky’s analysis. That would make the coastal zone roughly twice as white as California’s population.

It’s also an enclave of relative affluence. A UCLA School of Law research paper from 2011 found that neighborhoods just inside the Coastal Zone had lower population densities and fewer children than those just outside of it. The homes themselves were 20% more expensive, even after the researchers added statistical controls for a home’s distance from the beach.

The researchers attributed the difference to the introduction of the Coastal Act and its tighter regulatory scheme on new housing, which “triggered both supply and demand effects that on net have gentrified the area.”

Members of the Coastal Commission and its staff regularly counter that it has never rejected a proposed affordable housing project. In fact, even if rejecting housing projects was the commission’s goal — which the commission stresses is not the case — it rarely gets the opportunity to do so.

In most of the cities that dot the coast, regulatory enforcement has been delegated to local authorities through commission-sanctioned development plans. The public can appeal projects approved by those local authorities to the Coastal Commission itself, but only in designated areas especially close to the shore and other protected waterways.

Those appeals are relatively rare.

Of the 1,261 coastal development permits issued by local governments last year, just 48 were appealed, according to commission data. In roughly two-thirds of those cases, the commission deferred to the local government and declined to review the project. The Commission only denied two of the projects after accepting their appeals.

Commission critics argue that looking solely at the number of appeals ignores all the housing that was reduced, slowed down or saddled with higher costs as it made its way through the regulatory process. They also point to a hypothetical universe of developments that would have been proposed in a more development-friendly regulatory regime but weren’t, out of fear of the Coastal Act.

“I suspect a lot of projects don’t get proposed knowing that there’s going to be an additional delay and additional appeal risk,” said Nolan Gray, research director for pro-development California YIMBY. “We only see the projects where the developer is like, ‘YOLO!’”

A proposed condo development, Pisani Place, in Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood, is one recent example of a housing project that wasn’t flat-out denied by the Coastal Commission, but died in the face of its regulatory scrutiny anyway.

Despite it being approved by the city of Los Angeles, the Coastal Commission took issue with the designs and overall benefits of the project. The project included affordable units, but they were half the size of the market-rate condos and located partially below the sidewalk.

Commission staff noted that the project raised concerns about the “equitable distribution of environmental benefits,” that its various density bonuses were not “the least impactful on coastal resources,” and that the proposed building was “out of character with the surrounding structures because it does not respect the prevailing height or mass of the existing residences.”

Rather than redesign the project under the Coastal Commission’s guidance, the developers withdrew their application this month.

A middle ground on the coast?

Robin Rudisill, co-founder of Citizens Preserving Venice who appealed the project, said the developer never made a compelling case that the project’s use of state density bonus law was consistent with the Coastal Act. She blamed the Los Angeles for approving the project anyway.

“If the city had done its job, this poor developer would have understood the correct regulations along the way and maybe he could have made modifications that would have made things work,” she said.

Current law requires that the Coastal Act and state density bonus law be “harmonized so as to achieve the goal of increasing the supply of affordable housing in the coastal zone while also protecting coastal resources and coastal access.”

What that means in practice — especially when the two statutes often seem to require opposite outcomes — isn’t always easy to say. Rudisill said she knows of a “reasonable” middle ground when she sees it, pointing to a handful of density bonus projects sitting in the planning pipeline for Venice.

“They’re getting a lot of extra units. They’re getting extra height and, you know, some variances and open space and yards and everything,” she said. “But they’re not asking for the max. They’re not getting greedy.”

The current regulatory system allows for a nuanced debate, said Rudisill. “It may take some hard meetings and listening to the community and really understanding the impact,” she said. “That’s why it’s a discretionary decision.”

From the outside, that nuanced debate — which the bills under consideration this year would do away with or severely limit — can look a lot like haggling.

In Santa Cruz, a density bonus project proposed along the San Lorenzo riverwalk was appealed to the Coastal Commission last October. The commission rejected the appeal, allowing the project to move forward, after the developer agreed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on affordable housing and to construct a series of publicly accessible walkways through the property.

Exempting that project from the Coastal Act would mean “then we wouldn’t be having any of these debates about ‘community character,’” said Lee Butler, the city’s planning director. “But we could also be vulnerable to the scenario where we are seeing density bonus used to preclude public access.”

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *