The Public Trust Doctrine: A guiding principle for governing California's coast under climate change
California’s coastal bluffs may recede by as much 100 feet and extreme floods will become ever more common, according to recent studies. Communities are beginning to feel the pinch and coastal land managers are brainstorming how to address these extreme events and effects of California's dynamic coastline and sea level rise. To inform these efforts, a working group of coastal land use and public trust experts, convened by Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, has published a "Consensus Statement on the Public Trust Doctrine, Sea Level Rise, and Coastal Land Use in California."
Jointly authored by former state agency staff, professors, and local government representatives, the Consensus Statement asserts that the requirements of the public trust doctrine provide a framework for coastal adaptation through long-term planning and decision making, while ensuring that public values are not substantially impaired. The public trust doctrine is a long standing legal principle that requires governments to protect tide and submerged lands and navigable waterways for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of the public. In California, this obligation applies to all government decisionmakers, including state and local legislatures, agencies, and other government bodies. The Statement, accompanied by an in-depth white paper, provides a consensus interpretation of what the public trust doctrine requires of California coastal decisionmakers and how these decisionmakers can utilize forward-thinking strategies to protect public interests in the coastline from the threats of sea level rise.
“Representatives of a variety of state agencies have been grappling with how our public trust doctrine obligations will interact with sea level rise,” said Jennifer Lucchesi, Executive Officer of the California State Lands Commission, who briefed the authors on the agencies’ current perspectives and challenges. “The Center for Ocean Solutions working group, which included highly respected experts in this field, put this issue front and center and is providing a concise, relevant, and meaningful document that we can all use and reference in the future.”
The Consensus Statement is the product of a year of discussions focused on emerging threats to California’s public resources and how those threats will affect the state’s public trust responsibilities. Ultimately, members of the working group wanted to convey to state decisionmakers that, as our collective understanding of sea level rise grows, the public trust doctrine necessitates the inclusion of new evidence and consideration of all alternatives when confronting decisions regarding the use of public trust resources.
Ralph Faust, former Chief Counsel of the California Coastal Commission shared a key takeaway: “California's dynamic coastline has always presented a land use management challenge, but sea level rise is increasing the complexity of that challenge. We can no longer assume that our valuable coastal resources and infrastructure, that may have been safe from inundation and storm surges when built, will survive the next 20 or 30 years. Given the potential losses, the public trust doctrine’s requirement to consider the effects of foreseeable environmental change upon public resources in our long-term planning and project level decisions is a critical tool to protect our public interests and resources along the coast.”
Drawing on prior experience, the working group discussed the need to understand how public trust obligations and an increasingly constrained shoreline will affect the work of various state agencies, all with their own mandates to permit and regulate varying sectors of the California coast. Additionally, the group brainstormed and delivered concrete actions that can improve coordination among key stakeholder groups and proactive planning for the challenge ahead.
Moving forward, the working group members and Center for Ocean Solutions will share this work with a variety of audiences, including local and state coastal managers, with the intent to facilitate the coordination and cooperation required to prepare for the coastal adaptation challenges we face state wide.