Environment & Science

5 things to know about California Supreme Court case on seawalls

FILE PHOTO: Beachgoers walk the sand in Solana Beach, California, on May 20, 2013 below homes precariously perched atop cliffs. Some are supported by seawalls meant to hold back the ocean. A lawsuit before the California Supreme Court pits Encinitas homeowners against the state Coastal Commission over a seawall.
FILE PHOTO: Beachgoers walk the sand in Solana Beach, California, on May 20, 2013 below homes precariously perched atop cliffs. Some are supported by seawalls meant to hold back the ocean. A lawsuit before the California Supreme Court pits Encinitas homeowners against the state Coastal Commission over a seawall.
Lenny Ignelzi/AP

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The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday morning in a case over a private seawall in Encinitas that could have implications for the state’s ability to plan for rising ocean levels. 

The case pits a pair of private property owners who own land on a coastal bluff against the California Coastal Commission, which is  charged with regulating development along the coast and protecting and preserving the coast for the public.

In 2009, the homeowners applied to the Coastal Commission for a permit to rebuild and improve a seawall below the homes. The commission granted the permit in 2011 with the caveat that it had to be renewed in 20 years.

The homeowners argued that the 20-year condition unfairly devalued their property.

Here are five things to know about the case: 

1. The California Coastal Commission argues that a 20-year time limit on the seawall permit is reasonable given uncertainty about the future of the California coast.

The commission says it has a mandate to protect and preserve the coast for all Californians, and that given coastal erosion and sea level rise, the effects of the seawall on public coastlines could be much different in 20 years than they were when they issued the permit. 

In California, all land below the mean high tide land is owned by the public. 

2. Seawalls are highly contentious along the coast because of their potential impacts on the environment and adjacent property owners. 

Seawalls disrupt the natural pattern of beach replenishment along the coast, potentially causing the loss of public beaches. They can also cause erosion of nearby bluffs, potentially affecting other coastal property owners.

The Coastal Commission argues that, while the seawall in Encinitas is currently built above the mean high tide line, as the ocean rises, the structure could eventually be on public property, which could change the Coastal Commission’s evaluation of the wall at a future date. 

3. Under current law, coastal homeowners are allowed to build seawalls to protect their homes.

The California Coastal Act ensures the rights of coastal homeowners to protect their property if an existing structure is at risk due to erosion. Lawyers for the Encinitas homeowners argue that the commission put the 20-year limitation on their clients’ seawall in hopes that the law will change, allowing the Coastal Commission to deny seawalls in favor of allowing natural erosion of the coastline. 

One of the questions before the state Supreme Court is whether or not the Coastal Commission should be allowed to adopt a wait-and-see approach to permitting seawalls. 

In Southern California, one-third of the coast is protected by seawalls or another type of “armoring."

4. The homeowners argue that the 20-year permit limit on the seawall constitutes a “taking” of their property. 

As part of the seawall permit stipulations, the homeowners had to record the 20-year limitation on their property deed. The original owners of one of the homes have already passed away. If their children want to sell the property, the uncertainty of a future permit to maintain the seawall could significantly decrease the sales price. 

Plus, the homeowners say they spent about $1 million collectively to build the wall.  

5. Lots of groups have taken a position on the case. 

A dozen groups have filed or signed on to “friend of the court” briefs in the case. Among them, the National Association of Realtors, California Building Industry Association and various coastal homeowners’ associations have taken the side of the homeowners.

The California State Association of Counties, League of California Cities and the pro-coastal access group Surfrider Foundation support the Coastal Commission.