California’s Coastline: To Sink or To Save?

By: Katelyn Holcomb

Early California dreamers built and established themselves along a coastline that is inherently meant to change, but as sea levels rise, the Pacific Ocean engulfs California’s famous beaches and coastline. [1] With every swell, with every storm, and with every passing tide, the coastline erodes; and everything built on that earth—the Pacific Coast Highway, seaside communities, the rail line to San Diego—has nowhere to go.[2] One foot of sea level rise pushes the shoreline inland as much as the length of a football field, yet Californians insist on residing on the edge of the water.[3] Californians play a “game of chicken” with the Pacific Ocean, hoping that it will yield and allow for picture-perfect life along the coast to continue. However, the ocean persistently advances, eating the coastline we have come to admire and love.

The California Coastal Commission and The Coastal Zone

In 1972, a voter initiative established the California Coastal Commission (the Commission) in response to concerns that private developments were cutting off public access to the shore.[4] The California Legislature made the Commission permanent when it adopted the California Coastal Act of 1976.[5] The Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency composed of twelve voting members appointed by the Governor, the Senate Rules Committee, and the Speaker of the Assembly. [6]

The Commission deicides how the coastal zone is developed or protected from development. [7] The coastal zone stretches from Mexico to Oregon, extends seaward three miles (including all offshore islands), and pushes inland about 1,000 yards from the mean high tide line.[8] This massive coastal zone is a 1.5-million-acre expanse that covers an area larger than the State of Rhode Island. [9]

With so much land to protect and manage along the coastline, the Commission and coastal cities continuously grapple with how to best prepare for the impacts of climate change, like rising sea levels and erosion.[10] These impacts could not only devastate marine and coastal habitats, but also disrupt coastal recreation and public access to facilities and infrastructure.[11] There are limited options available to combat and adjust to sea level rise and erosion.[12] Two heavily debated solutions are sea wall construction and managed retreat. [13]

Sea Walls

A sea wall is a manmade structure that lies parallel to the coastline to protect the shore from erosion.[14] While sea walls are particularly efficient at protecting the properties behind them from erosion and damage, they are actually counter intuitive. [15] Sea walls do not allow for the absorption of wave energy and as the energy is directed sideways, the neighboring shoreline is at risk for erosion, which is known as “flanking erosion.”[16] Additionally, sea walls limit sand replenishment and lock the shoreline in place, leading to devastating loss of sandy beaches.[17] To combat sand loss, the Commission and coastal cities use sand replenishment projects to restore coastal habitats where natural sand-delivery processes have been impaired.[18] Sand nourishment projects often involve dumping large quantities of sand or sediment to increase the width of beaches.[19] Sand replenishment is not a permanent solution to natural and seawall created erosion because periodic replenishments would be needed to maintain the project’s effectiveness.[20]

Managed Retreat

On the other end of the spectrum, there is managed retreat. Managed retreat is a coastal management strategy that allows the shoreline to move inland, rather than attempt to hold the line with structurally engineered projects like sea walls.[21] Human development would be moved out of harm’s way, and the natural coastal habitat would be restored to enhance the benefit to the ecosystem.[22] The Commission has told California coastal cities to consider managed retreat as an option; however, this suggestion has caused serious backlash and litigation. [23]

The proposed implementation of managed retreat could pose constitutional questions with the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.[24] The Takings Clause, applicable to States through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, mandates that the federal government shall not “take” private property without just compensation.[25] The two most plausible claims to be brought will likely be per se takings and regulatory takings.[26]

Per Se and Regulatory Takings

A court will find a per se taking has occurred if a government regulation deprives a person of all of the economic value of their property.[27] If not, a court will evaluate whether a regulatory taking has occurred using the three-factor Penn Central balancing test.[28] Those three factors are: (1) the character of the government’s action, perhaps including the weight of the public purpose advanced; (2) the extent to which the regulation has damaged the property’s economic value; and (3) the effect of the regulation on the reasonable investment-backed expectations of the owner.[29] Courts apply the Penn Central test is on a case-by-case basis, which can create uncertainty for coastal cities and government authorities in what will be considered a taking.

California’s local and state government can likely avoid takings claims if they build a comprehensive and well-thought-out retreat strategy.[30] An approach that combines voluntary buyouts, land use regulations, or Transfer of Development Rights programs will allow property owners to recoup some economic value, and circumvent takings claims.[31] Carefully considered regulations will likely not impinge on the protected core of private property yet allow for managed retreat to become a viable option to adjusting to rising sea levels and erosion.


[1] Rosanna Xia, California Against the Sea 26 (2023).

[2] Id. at 16.

[3] Id. at 19.

[4] The Cal. Coastal Comm’n, California Coastal Voices, (2017),

[5] Cal. Coastal Comm’n Mission Statement, (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[6] Id.

[7] Cal. Coastal Comm’n, supra note 4.

[8] Cal. Coastal Comm’n, California’s Coastal Zone Boundary Slideshow, (last visited Feb. 1, 2024).

[9] Cal. Coastal Comm’n Mission Statement, supra note 5.

[10] Cal. Coastal Comm’n, The California Coastal Commission’s Legal Authority to Address Climate Change,,Mexico%20(and%20around%20nine%20offshore (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[11] Id.

[12], California’s Sea Level Is Rising And It’s Costing Over $6 Billion,,and%20wetland%20restoration%20and%20fortification (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[13] Id.

[14] Lisa Marlin, Sea Wall Advantages and Disadvantages: What You Should Know?, Green Coast (Nov. 14, 2022),

[15] Stefanie Sekich, Seawalls Are Stealing Our Sandy Beaches(Sept. 8, 2021),,at%20the%20ends%20of%20seawalls.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Explore Beaches, Beach Nourishment, (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[20] Id.

[21] Sean Cornell et al., What is Managed Retreat?, Penn. State Univ., (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[22] Id.

[23] Jake Bittle, As California attempts a ‘managed retreat,’ coastal homeowners sue to stay, Grist,  (May 10, 2023) (May 10, 2023).

[24] Geo. Climate Ctr., Managed Retreat Toolkit, Geo. Law, (last visited Jan. 27, 2024).

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Penn. Cent. Transp. Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).

[30] Id.

[31] Id.