Commission approves Statewide sea level rise policy guidance

CHULA VISTA — Climate change earned another acknowledgement this month as the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved on Aug. 12 a policy guidance document to address sea level rise up and down the state’s coast.

The commission formally approved a comprehensive document officially referred to as “Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance: Interpretive Guidelines for Addressing Sea Level Rise in Local Coastal Programs and Coastal Development Permits.”

Coastal Commission Executive Director Charles Lester said sea level rise could happen soon or occur much later, but adopting a policy guidance document would help keep options open and help local and state leaders to adapt to any future event.

“What we do now with documents like this and our plans in this decade is really going to set the choices for future generations,” Lester said. “We’re going to be thinking about the options we have now in ways that will determine what we can do later, 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now.”

State officials and commission staff spent nearly two years crafting the policy guidance document, which falls short of being a regulatory scheme but instead aims to provide government agencies with recommendations of how best to address potential sea level rise.

Commissioner Mary Shallenberger said the document is not cookie cutter and provides city governments with flexibility.

“Local governments really are given a great deal of flexibility in here. Everything in this guidance [advocates looking] at what’s on the ground, then applying it to the specifics of what you have on your particular coast,” Shallenberger said.

“This guidance has been prepared to assist planners and project applicants in understanding and preparing for some of the far-reaching implications of sea level rise. It does highlight the regulatory actions that may need to consider sea level rise and it offers suggestions for ways to incorporate sea level rise into planning and regulatory decisions, when needed,” commission staff stated in a report to commissioners.

Carey Batha, a Sea Grant Extension fellow with the Coastal Commission, said sea level rise, if realized, could have serious implications on coastal resources and communities with “a lower capacity to adapt.”

“It’s widely recognized that planning now to minimize these impacts and protect coastal resources is critical. Additional guidance from the state is needed to aid in the planning process at the local level,” Batha said. “Many local governments in California have already begun sea level rise adaptation planning processes and are actively looking forward to a finalized guidance from the commission.”

NOAA Coastal Management Fellow Kelsey Ducklow said the sea level rise guidelines recommend adaptive strategies on a case-by-case basis.

“Adaptation strategies should be chosen on a case-by-case basis and location-specific basis … and accounts for local conditions. Different strategies will be applicable to different locations,” Ducklow said. “The effectiveness of adaption strategies will likely vary across spatial and temporal scales. In many cases, a hybrid approach that uses multiple strategies may be necessary.”

The document includes guiding principles of how to address sea level rise, a discussion of best available science, adaptive strategies and legal and technical information. Also included in the document are step-by-step instructions of how local governments can address sea level rise in the Local Coastal Programs and the Coastal Development Permit process.

Becky Smyth, the West Coast regional director with NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management, said local communities would be able to rely upon the commission’s policy guidance to better address sea level rise.

“A lot of local governments are looking for tools. The guidance [document] does a really good job of providing a really comprehensive [and] relevant list of tools,” Smyth told commissioners.

There were some concerns with the policy guidance document.

Don Schmitz, a land use attorney who represents Newport Beach, told commissioners the proposed guidance policies of how to analyze sea level rise differ from how the Orange County municipality conducted its own studies on the issue.
Newport Beach, he said, spent three years studying how to address the impacts of sea level rise along the city’s coastline and within the harbor. The city’s planned presentation of a policy proposal to the Coastal Commission later this year could be jeopardized by the agency’s guidance document, Schmitz said.

“The suggested, ascribed policies and procedures for analyzing sea level [rise], which are in this guidance document, are new. They’re different. If we are going to be required to [follow the new procedures], then our entire LCP process is going to come to a screeching halt, which we would find disconcerting,” Schmitz told commissioners, adding he hoped the commission would work with Newport Beach to ensure the city could continue to develop its policy proposals.

Commissioner Roberto Uranga said the policy guidance document should factor current projects into future plans and serve as a living document. Uranga specifically cited Avalon’s fuel pier dock as a project not consistent with policy guidance document but should be grandfathered into the commission’s plans.

“Sometimes these guiding principles might cross the line in terms of being regulatory. We need to look at how that is going to be affecting projects already existing,” Uranga said. “If the existing project is there and doesn’t meet [the policy guidance document’s] standard, how is this document going to affect [the project]. Are we opening ourselves to future litigation?”

Commission staff responded the policy guidance document provides recommendations of how to address sea level rise.

Another concern: How could the commission assist cities who do not have the funds to conduct studies or hire consultants to advise them of how to address sea level rise and implement the policy guidance document’s recommendations?

“It’s not our responsibility to worry about people’s pocketbook, but the reality is that there are a lot of small farms, there’s a lot of people who use the coast [who] aren’t equipped to be able to meet this [policy guidance document],” Commissioner Martha McClure said. “There are many local governments who are not going to be able to meet this, even with an LCP grant. I want to bring everyone forward with this.”

Commission staff said they will continue to hold workshops and public meetings to help local governments craft sea level rise programs within the context of the policy guidance document.

A Pacific Institute study predicts California will experience up to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by 2100, placing about $100 billion worth of property at risk of coastal flooding. Commission staff cited reports claiming about 21 million people lived in the state’s coastal counties as of 2014.

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