California offers more than 1,100 miles of coastline, greater than the distance over land between San Diego and Seattle. Owning beachfront property is a dream for countless people, and it can be an excellent investment. Owning coastal property in California comes with obligations, however, including restrictions on development and, in some areas, public beach access. The California Coastal Commission (CCC) regulates the development and use of coastal property. San Diego real estate investors looking at beachfront property anywhere in the state should consider how CCC rules may affect them.
The California Coastal Commission
In 1972, voters passed Proposition 20, establishing the CCC as a temporary agency charged with preserving the California coastline. Four years later, the California Legislature made the CCC a permanent part of the state government when it passed the California Coastal Act.
The California Coastal Commission has jurisdiction over the “coastal zone,” defined to include the coastline from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line and the area of land stretching 1,000 yards inland “from the mean high tide line of the sea.” In developed areas, the coastal zone’s inland extent can be much less, and in certain undeveloped areas it can extend up to five miles inland.
Easements and Prescriptive Rights
An easement is a nonpossessory interest in real property that allows the use of someone else’s land for a specific purpose. For example, a public utility easement allows power lines and other utilities to cross private property, and it allows utility workers to access the property for repairs. An easement on beachfront property might allow beach access to certain people or to the public. The use of private property for a purpose like beach access without the owner’s permission, but also without their objection, could create a prescriptive easement after enough time passes.
The CCC has a program that allows coastal property owners to dedicate part of their property as a public easement for beach or coast access. It also has a program that examines areas where members of the public have historically had coast access, and it identifies locations where prescriptive easements might exist.
State law allows coastal property owners to prevent the use of their property for coastal access from becoming a prescriptive easement by either posting notices along their property line or by filing a notice in the county real estate records.
Coastal Development Restrictions
The development of coastal property requires a “coastal development permit” from the local government in most situations. The California Coastal Commission has authority to take action in response to violations of these provisions. Since 2014, this has included the authority to levy fines against property owners. A common complaint under these provisions involves coastal property owners who block beach areas that were previously accessible to the public.
A recent decision from a California court, Surfrider Foundation v. Martins Beach 1, LLC, offers an example of this type of dispute. The coastal property at issue consists of a beach located in a cove in San Mateo County. Because of cliffs on either side of the cove, beach access is only possible by a road leading from Highway 1. The defendant purchased a parcel of real property that includes the cove and part of the road in 2008. It allowed public use of the road to access the beach for one or two years, but it then closed the road. The court ruled that this constitutes “development” requiring a permit, and it affirmed a lower court order directing the defendant to allow public beach access.
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Real Estate News: San Diego City Council Considers Vacation Rental Property Regulations, Titles and Deeds, November 28, 2017
Ground Leases: What California Real Estate Investors Should Know, Titles and Deeds, September 25, 2017
Why Should I Invest in Real Estate? Titles and Deeds, March 10, 2017