Coastal Battle: Homeowners vs. California Coastal Commission in Fight Over Sea Wall Construction

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A battle over coastal property rights is brewing in Half Moon Bay, California, as rising sea levels pose a growing threat to the state’s cherished coastline. Last winter, severe storms caused extensive damage along California’s coast, and while most of the destruction has been repaired, a different kind of turmoil is stirring in this residential area. Homeowners in the Casa Mira complex are fighting for the right to build sea walls to protect their properties from further erosion.

The trouble began in 2016 when a severe storm caused 20 feet of bluffs to collapse into the ocean in front of the Casa Mira complex. Concerned about the imminent danger to their homes, the owners obtained an emergency permit to install boulders, called riprap, along the shoreline. In an effort to find a permanent solution, they applied to the California Coastal Commission for permission to build a concrete sea wall. However, in a surprising turn of events, the commission denied their request.

The Coastal Commission argued that sea walls contribute to beach erosion and advocated for a technique called “managed retreat,” which involves moving or removing homes in danger. The homeowners, who had spent $210,000 on engineering studies, felt frustrated and defeated by the decision. They filed a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, claiming that they had violated the state’s Coastal Act by neglecting private property rights.

In July of this year, the homeowners scored a victory when San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Marie Weiner ruled in their favor. Weiner found that the commission had misinterpreted the Coastal Act, which mandates the issuance of permits for sea walls to protect “existing structures.” The commission argued that “existing structures” referred only to those built before 1977 when the Coastal Act went into effect. The judge disagreed, stating that the commission’s interpretation was an “erroneous and unreasonable” reading of the law.

The Coastal Commission has appealed the ruling, and if the homeowners ultimately prevail, it could have significant implications for coastal development across California. It would either force the state to allow the construction of sea walls and other protective structures or require them to pay millions of dollars to property owners to remove or relocate at-risk buildings.

The controversy highlights a growing dilemma caused by rising sea levels. Global warming has led to a rise in ocean levels, and scientists predict further increases in the coming decades. The consequences are dire for coastal communities, with estimates suggesting that between $8 billion to $10 billion of existing coastal property in California could be underwater by 2050. Natural solutions, such as offshore reefs and sand replenishment, offer temporary relief but fail to address the long-term threat.

The debate over sea walls and managed retreat is a complex one, with competing interests at play. Proponents argue for property rights and the need to protect valuable assets, while opponents raise concerns about beach erosion and the loss of public access to the coastline. As the lawsuit continues, it remains uncertain how California will address the challenges posed by rising seas.