West Coast
Surfers walk along a shrinking beach in San Clemente, California, south of Los Angeles. Mark Rightmire / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images

CA - California homeowners sue to stop 'managed retreat' from the coast

A legal battle in Half Moon Bay could derail the state's climate adaptation push.

Mirada Road is a small cul-de-sac that runs right up to the edge of the Pacific Ocean, skirting the rim of a 30-foot bluff. The townhomes on this street, which is located in Half Moon Bay, California, are separated from the sea by nothing but a pedestrian walking trail on a beach that is eroding a few inches every year.

Back in 2016, a storm sent huge waves crashing against the shoreline, destroying most of the bluff overnight and leaving the Mirada Road homes in danger of immediate collapse. The homeowners association rushed to build a rock wall that would protect their homes.

The legal battle that followed was even more turbulent than the storm. The homeowners took their case to the California Coastal Commission, which regulates all construction along the coastline, but after weighing the matter for months, the commission shot down a proposal to make the new rock wall on the bluff permanent. This seemed to be a signal that the commission didn’t think the homes on Mirada Road should stay there.

Two years later, the commission approved a land management plan for the city of Half Moon Bay that again suggested Mirada Road’s days were numbered. The document said beachfront property owners should start planning to relocate or remove their vulnerable homes. There wasn’t a timeline stipulating when they should do so, nor was there any information on who would pay for relocation.

The homeowners’ association sued the agency not once but twice, arguing both that the commission was required to protect Mirada Road under state law and that Half Moon Bay’s plan to relocate homes was unconstitutional. The locals got a favorable preliminary ruling in the first case, convincing a state court judge that the commission was in the wrong. They are now pressing the agency to settle and allow their proposed sea wall, while also pushing to overturn Half Moon Bay’s relocation plan.

The fracas over Mirada Road is just the latest in a series of legal disputes over “managed retreat,” a controversial climate adaptation policy that calls for relocating and removing coastal structures rather than protecting them where they are. Experts say managed retreat is an important last-resort option for adapting to climate change, but California’s early attempts to implement the policy have provoked a backlash from homeowners and politicians. The coastal commission has faced several lawsuitsfrom property owners along the coast seeking to challenge its attempts to limit coastal development. Losing these lawsuits that could set a precedent that limits the commission’s ability to manage the coastline.

Homeowners on the California coast are some of the wealthiest in the country, and they have the money to exploit any legal ambiguities around the state’s authority to regulate coastal development, said Charles Lester, a former director of the California Coastal Commission.

“There’s a lot of money involved, and anytime you have a lot of money you have the ability to litigate,” Lester told Grist. “Any time there’s even a crack of uncertainty about what the law might mean, you’re gonna have people with money make those challenges.”

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