Project: The Public Trust Doctrine: A Guiding Principle for Governing California's Coast Under Climate Change

California coastal management is a complex and politically-charged issue. Balancing the legitimate needs of public and private development, recreation, economic interests, and public use has always been contentious. Rising seas promise to further challenge management efforts as critical ecosystems, private property, and public infrastructure collide. The potential for loss on all sides is high. Legal complexities, technical challenges, and an ever-changing and dynamic coastline responding to sea level rise has required a broad re-think of how the state manages and protects our coast’s important public benefits. Fortunately, a renewed focus on proactive and effective management may begin to alleviate the concerns created along these dynamic shoreline boundaries.

Working group of former state agency staff, professors and local government representatives.

The State of California must protect tide and submerged lands and navigable waterways of the state for the benefit, use, and enjoyment of all Californians. This obligation—arising from an ancient legal principle called the public trust doctrine—applies to all government decisionmakers in California, including state and local legislatures, agencies, and other government bodies. To discuss the role of the public trust doctrine as a guiding principle for coastal adaptation efforts, Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions hosted a working group of coastal land use and public trust experts.

Held on October 7th, 2016, the working group of former state agency staff, professors and local government representatives discussed emerging threats to California’s public trust resources and how those threats will affect the state’s public trust responsibilities. The meeting served as the critical starting point for a strategic discussion around an approach for California to fulfill its legal obligations along a changing coastline.

Talking about possible solutions.

The group identified the key players, laws, and physical processes that so often complicate coastal management. Drawing on prior experience, many of their discussions revolved around 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 concrete actions that can improve coordination and proactive planning to the challenge ahead.

Working group deep in discussion.

As a culmination of the discussions, the group has authored a “Consensus Statement on the Public Trust Doctrine, Sea Level Rise, and Coastal Land use in California.” This Consensus Statement, accompanied by an in-depth white paper, provides a shared interpretation of what the public trust doctrine requires of California coastal decisionmakers and, perhaps of greater value, how these decisionmakers can utilize forward-thinking strategies to protect valuable public interests in the coastline from the threats of sea level rise. This work will be shared 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.


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Sean B. Hecht
Co-Executive Director, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
Evan Frankel Professor of Policy and Practice
UCLA School of Law

Angela T. Howe, Esq.
Legal Director
Surfrider Foundation

Jana Zimmer
former Member and Vice Chair, California Coastal Commission
Instructor, UC Santa Barbara Environmental Studies
Author, “Navigating the California Coastal Act” (forthcoming, Solano Press)