Skip to main content

California Coastal Access and Climate Justice for All NRPA Parks & Recreation Magazine

California Coastal Access and Climate Justice for All

by Robert Garcia, Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš and Amy Trainer, 2016-04-01, Feature

“Beaches are not a luxury. Beaches are public spaces that provide a different set of rhythms to renew public life. Beaches are a democratic commons that bring people together as equals.” — Robert García and Erica Flores Baltodano, “Free the Beach! Public Access, Equal Justice and the California Coast,” Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

California is known around the world for its spectacular coastline. From the beaches of San Diego to the rugged bluffs of Big Sur and the mist-shrouded Lost Coast, our coastal parks are like our shared front yard — a place where people come together. But our beaches are under pressure from a double threat of climate change and mounting development pressure.

More than four decades ago, Californians came together to protect our coastline and beaches as a public commons. The passage of the California Coastal Act in 1976 through a ballot initiative was a landmark victory by the people, of the people and for the people. That legacy is now in danger of being lost unless we the people come together again, 40 years later, to hold our state’s leaders accountable for the stewardship of this shared resource.

The Coastal Act created a panel called the Coastal Commission to serve as trustees on behalf of the public interest. The commission is charged with upholding policies to protect and enhance public access, coastal resources and equal justice for all along the California coast. Achieving these goals involves social, policy, legal, health, economic and environmental principles. And, it depends on public engagement at commission meetings, the commitment of commissioners to the public interest and a strong and independent commission staff that reflects the new California.

We have recently seen just how important it is for the people of California to remain engaged in Coastal Commission decisions. In February, the Coastal Commission voted 7-5 to fire its executive director, Dr. Charles Lester. It did so behind closed doors without disclosing its reasons, disregarding more than 30,000 letters of support. That day, more than 1,000 people made their way to the hearing in secluded Morro Bay. Two-hundred-ninety-five people waited patiently to speak in support of Lester, while only one spoke against him during the 10-hour hearing, and 155 out of 163 commission staffers risked their jobs to express their support for Lester.

Mobilizing for the Coast

A “gang of 100,” comprised of diverse social justice, civil rights, Native American, health, education, spiritual, environmental justice and mainstream environmental groups representing millions of people throughout the state and beyond have submitted a joint statement to the Coastal Commission in support of coastal access, climate justice and an independent staff. While some observers see the business of coastal management as only an environmental concern, it is, in fact, a civil rights, public health and economic justice issue. The people who testified at the commission’s February hearing made this abundantly clear.

Civil rights attorney Erica Baltodano spoke passionately about the value of the beach in her and her family’s life. “I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, where childhood trips to the beach were necessary as a matter of survival during triple-digit summer heat waves. As an attorney with The City Project in Southern California, I spent nearly 10 years working to ensure equal access to public resources, including our beloved beaches, for the benefit of all Californians. I now live on the Central Coast with my husband and two children and we visit our local beaches regularly.”

Fred Collins, spokesperson for the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, spoke with simple eloquence about how Grandmother Ocean would take back the beach and coast as a result of climate change and rising sea levels. Indeed, the Coastal Commission unanimously adopted its Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance report in 2015. The report is a notable step forward for the commission — it includes environmental justice as a core principle and devotes a chapter to environmental justice.

People have asked why civil rights and social justice groups are working with coastal advocates. There are many reasons. The more difficult question is why mainstream environmental groups traditionally have not done enough to work with people of color and low-income people on our common goals.

The coast and climate belong to all of us. People of color and low-income communities who live in or depend on vulnerable areas along the coast suffer first and worst from the lack of coastal access, and from economic and environmental catastrophes like climate change. These people do not have the options available to beachfront billionaires. They do not have the alternative of wintering in places like Rio or buying higher land if rising temperatures and seas wash away the beach.

Places to play at the beach are not luxuries or amenities. A child’s right to play, for example, is a fundamental human right under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. But, the beach access and coastal trails we have fought so hard to protect are threatened by rising sea levels and temperatures. And, there is far more at stake than places to surf, swim or sunbathe. Native Americans will lose priceless and irreplaceable sacred sites and artifacts. Workers whose livelihood depends on tourism, gardening and housekeeping along the beach would lose jobs.

The Coastal Commission’s August 2015 Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance document paints a bleak picture of California’s vulnerability. In 2100, when the ocean is projected to have risen 4.6 feet, more than 200,000 people will be living along the open coast in areas exposed to flooding from a 100-year flood. Approximately 56,000 are lower-income people (earning less than $30,000 annually), 45,000 are renters and 4,700 are linguistically isolated and less likely to understand flood warnings.

Maintaining the Coalition

While they are often on the front lines of environmental and justice fights, and among the strongest supporters of environmental protections, people of color and low-income people are nevertheless marginalized by mainstream environmentalists, government agencies and public officials, funders and the media. Recent polls show that Latinos are far more likely to view climate change as extremely or very important to them personally, and are among the strongest supporters of actions to curb climate change.

Climate change will disproportionately hurt low-income people, exacerbating the economic divide. Climate change worsens a range of health problems that are particularly problematic for communities of color. Asthma rates will go up, for example, increasing healthcare costs, hurting performance in school and costing parents time from work. However, responding to the climate challenge and sea level rise can create jobs, improve people’s health, protect places to play, reduce heating and cooling bills, and reduce the damage caused by production of fossil fuels.

Part of the reason we work together is that historically, people of color and low-income communities disproportionately have been denied the benefits of coastal access. Most beaches were off limits to people of color throughout much of the 20th century because of racially restrictive housing covenants that prohibited people of color from owning or even using beachfront homes. More recently, the city of Malibu has restricted public access for all through illegal “No Camping” signs on the beach and coastal zone. Wealthy Broad Beach property owners posted phony “Private Beach” signs on public beaches. Media mogul David Geffen tried to keep the public out of the access path next to his beachfront mansion and had his case dismissed six times before letting people enjoy the public beach. A lack of reliable, inexpensive and efficient transportation to the beach deters inland residents without access to a car. Lack of affordable accommodations at the beach, a trend that is rapidly escalating, poses another significant deterrent.

Since the hearing in Morro Bay, it is clear that the public’s trust in the Coastal Commission is near an all-time low. Our broad coalition of organizations has continued to work together for our common goals to enhance public access, improve accountability and transparency at the commission, and ensure climate justice remains part of the conversation.

Relying on state and federal equal-justice protections, we presented a draft resolution to the Coastal Commission at its March hearing in Santa Monica, asking it to renew its commitment to comply with these laws. We anticipate the commission will act on the resolution at its April hearing. Click here to read the draft resolution.

Similar to the California Coastal Act, federal civil rights laws guarantee equal access to publicly funded resources and prohibit intentional discrimination and unjustified discriminatory impacts by recipients of federal funding, including the Coastal Commission, based on race, color or national origin. The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that the prohibition of disparate impact discrimination, regardless of intent, is necessary to help move our country beyond a legacy of discrimination and toward opportunity for all.

To truly safeguard the public trust the California Coastal Commission needs strong and independent staff leaders who are accessible and accountable to the people of California. We are urging the commission to draw from a diverse applicant pool and hire an outstanding new executive director who is committed to upholding the core principles of the Coastal Act and equal protection laws.

In addition, we ask the Coastal Commissioners to agree to the importance of engaging members of the public in the hiring process for the new executive director. We ask them to invite one public member from the social justice and civil rights community, one Native American member, one public member from the conservation community and one public member representing the educational and scientific perspective. We believe that engaging public-interest stakeholders in the process will help improve the commission’s transparency and accountability that has now sunk below sea level.

Just as the people of California came together 40 years ago to claim the coast as a public commons, we are again working together to ensure this commons endures. We can protect the coast for all, slow sea level rise, grow the economy and promote human health, the environment and equal justice at the same time. But in order to do this, we need leadership on the Coastal Commission that shares our values, represents our interests and reflects the diversity of the new California. The coast, climate and government belong to all of us.

Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel at The City Project, a nonprofit environmental justice and civil rights organization based in Los Angeles. Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš is the Founder and Director of Azul. Amy Trainer is Deputy Director at the California Coastal Protection Network.


Robert García and Erica Flores Baltodano, “Free the Beach! Public Access, Equal Justice, and the California Coast,” 2 Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties 143, page 5. (2005)

California Coastal Commission, Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance: Interpretive Guidelines for Addressing Sea Level Rise in Local Coastal Programs and Coastal Development Permits (2015), page 25 and page 60.