Senator Wiener Introduces Bill To Exclude Urbanized San Francisco From The Coastal Zone, Clarify Coastal Commission’s Role in Housing Approvals

January 19, 2024

SACRAMENTO – Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 951, legislation to remove urbanized San Francisco from the Coastal Zone — while retaining coastal natural resources in the zone — and refine the role of the coastal commission in housing approvals under certain circumstances. By resolving unnecessary permitting delays in the disproportionately low-housing Coastal Zone, SB 951 will aid cities’ efforts to meet state housing goals.

“The Coastal Commission plays an important role in protecting coastal resources like beaches, bluffs, and wetlands, but the Commission should not be in the business of second-guessing — and frequently delaying or undermining — local housing decisions in urbanized areas that are not natural resources,” said Senator Wiener. “We need local planning departments and state housing agencies to handle housing permitting. SB 951 eases the process for housing that has no effect on coastal resources, and in the midst of this housing crisis, we should all agree on the need for that.”

SB 951 is sponsored by San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

“San Francisco is changing how we get housing built, and we need to remove barriers that get in the way of that important work, including at the state level,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed. “SB 951 addresses a key issue impacting urbanized areas in coastal cities like San Francisco, while still protecting important coastal resources across the state. This is the kind of surgical, smart policy we need to expand housing opportunities while still being strong protectors of our natural environment.”

While housing unaffordability is an issue throughout California, the added layers of discretionary permitting in the Coastal Zone have made the problem especially acute near the coast. This affordability crisis has had profound racial and economic impacts on these communities. According to a Stanford Environmental Law Journal report, within one kilometer of coastal access, white populations increase by 25 percent, while Hispanic and Latino populations fall 52 percent, and Black populations fall 60 percent. Coastal communities also have, on average, 18 percent fewer households below the poverty line.

Additionally, according to a Legislative Analyst Office’s Report in 2015, the lack of affordable housing means workers in coastal communities often commute 10 percent further each day than their inland counterparts. Transportation is the leading source of carbon emissions in California, and these extra long commutes threaten the very coastal resources the Coastal Act was passed to protect by exacerbating the climate crisis.

The Coastal Commission was established by ballot initiative in 1972 and codified into law in the Coastal Act of 1976. It was granted broad powers to protect precious coastal resources, including complete authority over zoning within the Coastal Zone.

This zoning authority sometimes brings the Coastal Commission into conflict with cities, since the Coastal Zone includes many urbanized areas that are already highly developed economic centers. The Coastal Zone includes parts of Santa Monica, Malibu, Carmel, and Santa Cruz, all of which face severe housing shortages and rely on complex zoning and permitting processes to manage the many demands of development in a vibrant and productive community.

The affordable housing shortage is particularly acute in San Francisco, which has the longest housing approvals process in the state by far and recently faced a historic state audit of its broken housing approvals process. As the city works to meet its state housing goal of producing 82,000 homes over the next 8 years, it needs authority over permitting in the urbanized areas where affordable housing is most needed. Therefore, SB 951 redraws the coastal zone boundary in San Francisco, removing portions of the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, as well as a portion of Golden Gate Park and other various tweaks. Natural coastal resources are retained in the zone.

Throughout the state, the Commission’s purview includes all permitting within the Coastal Zone, except where local governments have adopted a local coastal program (LCP), which must be approved by the Commission. Once an LCP is adopted and approved, the local government retains permitting authority, however, the Commission may still appeal certain permits. 

The Commission can appeal some projects if the use is not within the principally permitted uses of a parcel, as defined in the LCP. However, the Commission has interpreted “principally permitted uses” to mean the first use listed in the LCP, and no other permitted uses may apply. This means that if a parcel is permitted for both commercial and residential uses, and a project seeks to alter a parcel from commercial use to residential use, the Commission may file a months-long appeal, even though both the former and the proposed use are allowed by the LCP already approved by the Commission. Given that modern zoning often includes various uses, this overly narrow interpretation severely restricts the ability of local governments to swiftly move forward on projects that are within the listed permitted uses. 

SB 951 clarifies that the Commission does not have jurisdiction to appeal projects that are within the permitted uses for a specific parcel where there is an LCP in place. Given these uses were present in the LCP when the Commission granted approval, projects that fall within these established parameters should not be worthy of an appeal, solely on the basis of the new use of the parcel.

Additionally, SB 951 mandates that updates to LCPs originating from required rezonings under housing element law must be completed on the same timeline as the rezoning itself. This change creates a timeline, typically one to three years, for both compliance with the relevant housing element programs as well as compliance with the Coastal Act.

Map of Proposed Changes to the Coastal Zone