So You Need a Coastal Permit?


Few permit requirements strike greater fear in the heart of a homeowner than to learn that a new home project will require a Coastal Development Permit.

The requirement might be reasonable for constructing a new house but the permit often raises eyebrows when it is needed for a room addition or a new wing to the house.

Many of us share similar thoughts on these permits: the idea is simple – and of course the neighbors will love everything about it. And, let’s face the reality of the situation, there is barely enough time and money to get the project off the ground before the property owner must comply with the Coastal Development Permit process.

Back in 1976 the state of California enacted the California Coastal Act, which established the Coastal Commission. The commission’s mission is to preserve access to the coast, starting with shoreline public access and recreation, lower cost visitor accommodations, terrestrial and marine habitat protection, visual resources, landform alteration, and just about anything else that is done along the coast.

The process is a wonderful concept, truly a gift for the enjoyment of all. After four decades, the procedures are well-established and offer plenty of hurdles.

The first two forms of access are most significant for properties fronting the beach. A simple stair or a dedicated path may be required to access the beach. A design at an oceanfront residence will rely on the location of the bluff edge, and possibly some of the most nuanced interpretations of view access. Additionally, there are rights tied to an existing structure, balanced with the rights of the people for access to the coast.

There are standards for projects that are located some distance from the water, if the project affects views toward the ocean or lagoons. The basis for evaluation is included in the certified Local Coastal Program and the Community Plan. Most projects have to deal only with the view access. Surprisingly, a lot of neighbors will think that means that even the views from private homes are protected.

Just about every city, including Del Mar, Solana Beach and San Diego, have their own programs that the Coastal Commission has certified. Sometimes the Coastal Commission itself will step in, but generally architects rarely have to go to the Coastal Commission when the rules are followed. In fact, sometimes the quick pace of approval is surprising.

When everything goes smoothly, the design is submitted to the city, neighbors receive their notification letters and a community meeting is held. As a professional architect I have represented both sides of this issue – I have presented projects that I designed, reviewed work done by others and have presided as chairman of the community meetings.

With a little thoughtful preparation, a good presentation and a clear understanding of the character of the neighborhood, a coastal design can be approved rather swiftly. Issues like the scale and appearance of the design can become quite important, as do the materials, the site planning and the overall design of the house. A Coastal application takes all of this much farther and considers the relation of the design to the street and that ever-precious view.

During this permit process, expect to meet neighbors you may have spoken with on rare occasion. Also, expect pictures and comments that do not apply to your house to somehow find their way into the discussion.

The Coastal Permit process can be time-consuming, confounding and quite frustrating. In the end, you can expect a little bit of neighborly gossip about your project and how you were able to come up with a plan that everyone can be proud of.

And the best result of all is when the neighborhood can take credit for another sensitive design in the all-important coastal zone.