Farming for Developers: Coastal Commission Stories

Posted on June 10, 2014 by Steve Blank

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive.”
Walter Scott, Marmion
Last week I got an email last week from a New York VC asking for advice about building a house in the California Coastal Zone. For six and a half years I served as a public official on the California Coastal Commission.

The call reminded me that it’s been a year since I resigned, and it’s time to tell a few stories of what I learned as a Coastal Commissioner. Each and every month I learned that not everything was how it seemed.

Here’s Lesson 1: Farming for Developers.

The California coast is a panorama of open farm fields and hundreds of miles of undeveloped land. Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway) follows the coast for almost the entire length of the state. The kind of road you see in car ads and movies, it looks like it was built to be driven in a sports car with the top down. The almost 400 mile coast drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco is one of the road trips you need to do before you die.

With 39 million people in the state, there’s no rational reason there aren’t condos, hotels, houses, shopping centers and freeways, wall-to-wall for most of the length of our state’s coast (instead of just in Southern California).

The Coastal Act saved California from looking like the coast of New Jersey.California Coast

Almost 40 years ago the people of California passed Proposition 20 – the Coastal Initiative – and in 1976, the state legislature followed with the Coastal Act, which created the California Coastal Commission. Essentially the Coastal Commission acts as California’s planning commission of last resort for all 1,100 miles of the California coast.

Thanks to the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission, generations of Californians and our visitors enjoy the most pristine and undeveloped coast in the country, with recreation and access for all. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

The downside is that the coastal zone has the strictest zoning and planning requirements in the country.

As a new commissioner I learned quickly what developers would do to bypass those requirements.