California Coastal Commission DRAFT Coastal Adaptation Planning Guidance: Residential Development

Executive Summary

In March 2018, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) released Draft Coastal Adaptation Guidance for Residential Development (Draft Guidance) to provide local governments sea-level rise adaptation strategies and example legal and policy tools for residential development. CCC is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency that exercises oversight for activities affecting California’s coast. Through the Draft Guidance, CCC seeks to provide state and local decisionmakers with tools to address the complexities associated with coastal land uses across approaches to residential development that are compounded by variation in the physical environment. Specifically, the Draft Guidance offers a range of legal and policy tools to help facilitate local planning for resilient shorelines and protect coastal resources, including through potential managed retreat strategies. The guidance explores the advantages and disadvantages of many adaptation options, and offers model policy language that could be used to implement best practices. The guidance and model policy language examples may be useful for other coastal jurisdictions planning for or regulating the impacts of sea-level rise on development as the language can be customized and adapted to specific situations and contexts. This guidance can assist coastal managers, local governments, and planners to address climate impacts within their jurisdictions and improve the resiliency of their coastlines and communities. The Draft Guidance is not a regulatory document or checklist and, as of July 2020, has not been finalized by CCC.



In March 2018, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) released the Draft Coastal Adaptation Planning Guidance for Residential Development (Draft Guidance) to provide recommendations and guidelines for how local governments in California can address sea-level rise confronting residential development in their Local Coastal Programs (LCP). CCC is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency that exercises oversight for activities affecting the state’s coast. In California, LCP are the planning instrument for implementing sea-level rise adaptation strategies in California (through land-use and implementation plans) prepared by local governments and submitted to CCC for review. LCP must be consistent with the requirements of the California Coastal Act including for public access and recreation. The Draft Guidance is an advisory tool and not a regulatory document or legal mandate. The information and examples within it are offered to cities and counties, and other interested parties, to consider when drafting policies and reviewing individual permit decisions for new development or redevelopment in their coastal zones. In the California context, this can help cities and counties achieve LCP policies that are consistent with the California Coastal Act, in light of sea-level rise. In addition, the Draft Guidance can serve as a reference for other coastal jurisdictions planning for sea-level rise to assist local governments, planners, and coastal managers with recommendations and model policy language to implement different adaptation strategies, including managed retreat, in local coastal or land-use plans and ordinances. 

The Draft Guidance builds on the California Coastal Commission’s Sea-Level Rise Policy Guidance from 2015 by providing additional details on how local governments can address sea-level rise for residential development in their LCPs. The Draft Guidance was prepared with financial assistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and has not yet been finalized by CCC. 


Overview of the Draft Guidance’s Organization and Content 

Overall, the Draft Guidance offers background information on sea-level rise hazards, legal considerations, and adaptation planning (Sections 1-5) and provides model policy language that local governments could consider to implement different legal and policy tools in their LCP (Section 6). Section 1 explores the role of LCP in resilient shoreline planning. In addition, the Draft Guidance states that residential development is one of the most common types of community development along the California coast and that it is composed of different types and patterns. Moreover, the California coast is composed of a range of physical environments from high cliffs to low river mouths; rocky substrates to sandy dunes; and high wave energy exposed beaches to lower energy estuarine and bay environments. Like in many coastal states, California’s diversity of residential types and patterns and physical environments can create complexities for local decisionmakers. The Draft Guidance attempts to provide support for local governments by creating typologies (p. 8, “Typologies are systematic classifications of groups that have characteristics in common.”) to identify and strategize adaptation options based on different residential types and patterns and physical environments. An example typology from the Draft Guidance is copied below (p. 8).

Through the Draft Guidance, CCC emphasizes that sea-level rise adaptation is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach and with these typologies, proposes one way that states can help local governments organize their actions. Given the Draft Guidance’s focus on residential development, CCC acknowledges that additional factors, like infrastructure, can impact sea-level rise adaptation policies.  

Shore Development Type


Example (See Box 1)


Urban blufftop

a) Low

b) High

Solana Beach


Urban beachfront

a) Beach

b) Dune


Broad Beach


Low density blufftop

a) Low

b) High

Big Lagoon


Low density beachfront

a) Beach

b) Dune


Stinson Beach


Urban estuary

a) Bay

b) River

c) Marsh

Newport Beach


Low density estuary

a) Bay

b) River

c) Marsh

Bodega Bay

Section 2 contains crosscutting policy recommendations for all coastal hazard or “hazardous” areas. Section 2 includes the following seven policy recommendations that CCC finds applicable across all shoreline development and adaptation strategies:

  • Use the best available science to evaluate and understand sea-level rise risks and adaptation responses;
  • Require risks to be disclosed (to current and future property owners) and for property owners to assume risks of developing in hazardous locations;
  • Avoid and minimize hazards through siting and design;
  • Plan for removal of threatened development in some circumstances;
  • Regulate redevelopment;
  • Prepare for emergency permits; and
  • Develop adaptation plans. 

Similarly to Section 2, Section 4 identifies relevant legal considerations, like takings law and the public trust doctrine, that cut across all potential adaptation strategies. In Section 3, the Draft Guidance includes a comparative analysis of different adaptation strategies, including managed retreat (discussed in more detail below), that could be designed for different areas based on the typologies in Section 1.

Section 6 provides local governments with model policy language that could be adopted or modified to implement the different sea-level rise adaptation strategies elaborated on in Section 3 in local coastal or land-use plans or ordinances:

  • Avoiding sitting development in hazard areas
  • Designing for the hazard (accommodation)
  • Moving development away from hazards through managed retreat 
  • Moving hazards away from development through habitat buffers for wetlands and other shoreline habitats (soft protection)
  • Building barriers to protect from hazards (hard protection)


Managed Retreat Examples

The subsequent parts of this entry highlight the discussion of managed retreat in Sections 3 and 6, and conclude with the Draft Guidance’s potential future use and applicability in California and for other coastal managers and local governments.

Developing a Managed Retreat Program

Among a range of adaptation options, the Draft Guidance includes managed retreat as a potential strategy local governments may consider. CCC acknowledges that as sea levels rise, and related impacts including coastal erosion, salt water intrusion and flooding migrate inland, new development may increasingly have to be located further inland. In the Draft Guidance, CCC suggests that parcel-scale managed retreat may be expanded to a neighborhood- or community-scale through a Managed Retreat Program in order to best meet California Coastal Act objectives that include minimizing hazards, protecting coastal resources, and maximizing public access. The Draft Guidance provides information on the benefits and challenges of managed retreat, as well as the recommended components of a local Managed Retreat Program as a part of coastal or land-use plans and ordinances (see below). The guidance advises on the need to build community support through a visioning process, and for advanced planning to ensure that managed retreat strategies are considered before potential opportunities to implement them are lost. 

Model Policy Language for a Managed Retreat Program

Section G.10 of the Draft Guidance contains model policy language that local governments could consider incorporating into their local coastal or land-use plans and ordinances to establish a Managed Retreat Program to move, modify, or remove development when necessary to protect the migrating shoreline and coastal resources. Overall, the model policy includes five key components of a Managed Retreat Program: 

  1. Determine a physical impact trigger as a legal basis to move, modify, or remove vulnerable coastal structures: At the core of a proposed Managed Retreat Program, a local government should determine and establish a physical impact threshold or “trigger” at which point coastal structures in the program must be moved, modified, or removed. In the Draft Guidance, CCC proposes that structures should be moved, modified, or removed when the beach area is reduced below a minimum width. A physical impact trigger, like minimum beach width, can allow local governments to apply retreat decisions consistently across vulnerable coastal properties (compared to on an ad hoc basis) and put current and future property owners on notice regarding climate impacts and development restrictions.  
  2. Create permit requirements for all new development and certain redevelopment activities: A local government could require that permits for all new development (and redevelopment above a given threshold) in the most vulnerable coastal areas (e.g., “Beach Open Space Zone”) include terms and conditions to move, modify, or remove structures when it becomes necessary to maintain a minimum beach width. The permit’s terms and conditions could also be recorded in the deed to serve as notice of this restriction to all future landowners.
  3. Encourage voluntary participation: A local government can encourage property owners to participate in the Managed Retreat Program by offering an incentive to delay restrictions to move or remove structures for a minimum time period (e.g., 30 years). Property owners who choose to voluntarily participate in the program would not otherwise be required to remove structures based on a development or redevelopment permit under #2. 
  4. Identify and pursue diverse funding opportunities: A local government should identify and pursue funding opportunities to acquire priority properties and development rights from willing sellers that voluntarily participate in the program (this would not include properties covered by a permit and deed restriction). Potential funding sources could include in-lieu fees, grants, or other state or federal funds to purchase easements or development rights. A local government could also consider leasing acquired properties back to their original property owners or others through a legal tool called a “leaseback” for residential or vacation purposes as an additional source of revenue to support land acquisitions and the removal of structures when the minimum beach width is triggered or leasing a structures is determined to be infeasible (e.g., a structure is damaged).
  5. Restore and preserve acquired properties as open space: Properties that are acquired should be restored and preserved as open space to ensure the minimum beach width is maintained for ecosystem, flood resilience, and community benefits like public access. 


Applicability and Modification

CCC notes that specific local and regional context and existing development patterns must be considered when developing long-term sea level rise strategies, and that not all model policies within the Draft Guidance, including managed retreat, will be applicable or feasible in all areas. Furthermore, CCC states that as a general rule, no specific strategy should be considered the “best” option and that in some cases a hybrid strategy approach may be necessary. Other coastal managers, local governments, and planners should consider the range of legal and policy options and tradeoffs that are relevant to their specific communities, locations, and development patterns and recognize that even though model policies can serve as a starting point, they will likely need to be customized to be feasible and effective.


Publication Date: March 2018

Related Organizations:

  • California Coastal Commission

Related Toolkits:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Agency guidance/policy
  • Planning guides
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

States Affected:


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