Thinking of buying a home on or near the California coast? Or maybe a place in the hills with an amazing view of the Pacific? Perhaps a cabin near a stream that flows into the ocean?
Before you take the plunge, bear in mind that a “lifeguard” of sorts is standing by to oversee many aspects of living within sight of the water: the California Coastal Commission (CCC).
Established in 1972 and made permanent four years later, the Sacramento-based commission’s mission is “… to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance environmental and human-based resources of the California coast and ocean for environmentally sustainable and prudent use by current and future generations.”
How that mission is enforced has evolved over the years. Coastal access and unobstructed views remain high on the list of concerns that can potentially affect homeowners even miles from the nearest shoreline.
Want to add a deck? Build a second story? Put up a gated fence near the sand? Make sure you or your contractor are up to date on CCC regulations. And navigating those regulations can be a challenge. The best place to start is the commission’s website, coastal.ca.gov, where you can read about recent decisions, as well as download permit applications and appeals forms specific to each of the commission’s six districts, which stretch along the state’s entire 840-mile-long coast.
“The Coastal Commission’s rules affect all waterways, specifically ones that run into the ocean,” said Marco Rufo, a REALTOR® – Broker Associate with our Pacific Palisades office. He has not only helped clients buy and sell properties within the coastal zone the past 20 years, but also has personal experience dealing with the CCC.
“I’ve built homes in Hollywood, a good 20 to 30 minutes from the ocean, and was affected because of the visual – looking straight at the ocean. The original concept of the Coastal Commission was – and I actually fought it once and won – if there was a ship one mile out from shore and people on that ship could see your house, you needed to go through the CCC. The idea is to keep the visual of the ocean as prominent as possible. Which is actually a good thing. It’s not a negative. It’s restrictive when you try to build, though.”
That’s where the permitting process comes in. If you decide to go ahead and add that second story, first submit the plans to your municipal or county planning department. Their staff should tell you whether you also need to complete and file the appropriate application permit with the CCC. If so, you’ll need to pay a fee based on a sliding scale, then wait for commission approval. That could take weeks or months, depending on its staff’s workload, possible input from neighbors, and other factors.
Once approved, you’re good to go, but you still face visits from CCC inspectors to make sure everything is in compliance. If not, changes will be ordered and additional fees might be assessed. If you’re requesting a variance so you can add an element that deviates from existing regulations, a hearing could be required and the process will take even longer.
How do you know for sure if your potential dream home falls within the coastal zone? There are several ways to find out. Check to see if the MLS listing or webpage description mentions California Coastal Commission. Visit sites such as the city of Los Angeles’ Zone Information and Map Access System (enter property address, and then click the Additional dropdown at screen left).
Most importantly, work with an experienced sales associate who is familiar with the maze of CCC codes and procedures. Although agents cannot give you legal advice, they can help direct you to those individuals that can help navigate CCC issues.
“It is common for the agent to tell you a property is in the coastal zone,” Marco said. “Your agent is required to advise you to research any possible Coastal Commission oversight, but not to advise you on the rules and regulations that might apply.
“Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties includes a disclosure that your property may or not be in the CCC zone. I frequently deal with properties on or near the water, so I specifically write it into the disclosure.
“Before you buy, do your research, and understand there are limitations the CCC can impose on a particular structure. It’s up to you to make sure all of their rules are followed.”