Beach Access, Coastal Preservation, Shoreline Armoring, Legal
May 18 2019

Surfrider San Diego Chapter Fights Harmful Coastal Armoring in the Lindstrom Litigation

by Angela Howe

UPDATE: On September 19, 2019, the California Court of Appeal upheld the California Coastal Commission's strong coastal protection provisions to ensure new coastal development is sited safely and minimizes impacts on beach access.  Read the full description of the Opinion written by Surfrider's outside counsel Molly Melius here

Surfrider Foundation San Diego County Chapter has actively been defending county beaches for decades through their Beach Preservation Committee and work to prevent the harmful effects of coastal armoring from destroying our beloved beaches.  Recently, Surfrider Foundation, with the assistance of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School, submitted an amicus brief (or “friend of the court” brief) in litigation that will likely set important precedent for how California beaches are managed and protected in the face of sea level rise. 

The Lindstrom v. California Coastal Commission seawall case involves permitting fora blufftop property in North County San Diego and the requirement to build new development in a way that will not induce future shoreline armoring. The Plaintiffs’ vacant lot sits atop a 65 foot bluff that is subject to a variety of erosive forces, including wave action, narrowing beaches, block failures, and landslides. Plaintiffs sought to build an approximately 6,000 square foot home with a basement and attached garage on their 6,776 square foot lot.  The Plaintiffs requested a 40-foot setback, but the California Coastal Commission imposed a 60-foot setback requirement based on the factor of safety calculated for landslides and erosion.  (A “setback” is a requirement that new coastal development not be placed within a certain distance from the water’s edge). The Commission also required a waiver of the right to future shoreline armoring to protect the new home (which conforms to the intent of the setback calculation).  The lower court sided with Plaintiffs that challenged these conditions, and the Coastal Commission appealed to the California Appellate Court for the Fourth Appellate District in San Diego.  Surfrider Foundation submitted an application for leave to file our amicus curiaebrief on April 25, 2019. Surfrider’s main arguments centered around the following concepts:

California’s beaches are tremendous recreational, environmental and economic resources, which are protected by state law and policy. As cited in the brief, beachgoers in California spend approximately $22 billion each year on beach related expenditures.  The town where the permit issue arises, Encinitas, hosts approximately 3 million visitors to the beach every year. 

Coastal armoring, such as the use of seawalls, will narrow and eventually destroy beaches.  As described in the brief, “[e]ven as the coast recedes, California’s iconic sandy beaches can persist: they will simply migrate landward with the coastal bluffs as long as natural processes of erosion continue to furnish a supply of sand.
Manmade coastal armoringinterferes with these natural erosion processes by fixing the back of the beach in place, blocking any landward migration or bluff erosion.”

We also defend the wisdom and necessity of setbacks as a coastal management device that can maximize the value of coastal resources. This management device allows room for the natural course of erosion as well as future sea level rise.

The Coastal Commission can require that blufftop property owners waive the right to future coastal armoring as part of their permitting authority.  This ensures that the property owners have an incentive to place any new development far enough from the coastline so as not to require a seawall.

This past week, the Plaintiffs filed an opposition to Surfrider Foundation’s ability to file an amicus brief, which will be heard by a merits panel. Plaintiffs argue that we are introducing new arguments and theories that were not raised previously.  In fact, we are presenting broader policy perspective on the implications of short-sighted coastal management decisions, which is what a “friend of the court” brief is intended to do. Surfrider entered the case because we have a unique perspective to bear on the matter: not one of a coastal management agency or of a private property owner, but of an organization that stands to protect the right of all to access and enjoy a healthy California coastline.

Surfrider is very thankful to the Mills Law Clinic at Stanford Law School for their superb and professional work on our behalf.