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Rising Sea Levels Test Limits Of Property Law, Land Use Policy

Publication Date: 
April 22, 2013
Daily Journal
Fiona Smith

Professor Meg Caldwell spoke with the Daily Journal's Fiona Smith on the need for developing "forward-thinking policies" when it comes to enviornmental laws. 

It's a creeping problem that's only going to get worse in California. Over the past century, sea levels have risen close to 8 inches along the state's coast, but a much more dramatic upsurge is coming. By 2100, scientists expect that waters could be more than 5 feet higher than they are today, putting billions of dollars worth of property at risk of being permanently inundated or under constant threat of floods. The situation also raises a host of legal issues involving private property rights, the protection of natural resources, public beach access and local land use policy. Environmental lawyers say current laws are inadequate to take on the problem, and without changes, the state faces higher costs and more legal conflicts.

"We're still working with many laws like the Coastal Act that were anchored in a scientific understanding that has shifted, advanced," said Margaret R. Caldwell, a professor at Stanford Law School and former chair of the California Coastal Commission. "The tea leaves are pointing toward increasing controversy and conflict, and that's why trying to develop forward-thinking policies to either head off the conflict or dealing with it responsibly when it does arise ... is really important."


While properties built before the 1976 Coastal Act have a qualified right to build sea walls to protect their properties from imminent danger, properties built after the law was put in place can be barred from erecting barriers. But seawalls on one property can cause further erosion on adjacent properties, leading more people to clamor for armor, Stanford's Caldwell said. The problem of having a patchwork of properties treated differently under the law begs for a regional solution that makes sense for all the landowners, she said.


Some local agencies, however, are beginning to address it. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which oversees development on the bay, now requires new projects to build with sea level risks in mind. In Humboldt County, officials required a coastal development to purchase land further inland so homeowners can relocate their oceanfront property as the beach draws closer. The homes are to be built so they can be moved, according to Caldwell.

"I'm optimistic there are some really good policy tools we can start to experiment with," Caldwell said. "We know this is coming; there's no excuse to sit back and not plan and not innovate and create policy options that will work over the long haul."