A bill governing seawalls introduced in the state assembly this month has some residents in Marshall and Stinson Beach concerned about their ability to protect their homes. But the organization that sponsored the legislation says the provision that has caused those concerns codifies in law an approach the California Coastal Commission is already taking.

Assembly Bill 1129, introduced by Monterey Bay Assemblyman Mark Stone and sponsored by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, is framed as a way to bolster the protection of the coast as sea-level rise threatens beaches. Seawalls are widely acknowledged to have detrimental effects by limiting sand supply, causing erosion and inhibiting beaches from accommodating rising seas. 

The bill, which will be heard in the assembly’s natural resources committee on Monday, would provide the coastal commission with the power to enforce rules related to emergency permits for seawalls—without going to court. But it would also define, for the first time in state law, what the coastal commission should consider an “existing structure”—the only structures allowed to have shoreline protection devices, such as a seawall, by right. 

The bill defines an existing structure as a “structure that is legally authorized and in existence as of January 1, 1977,” the date that the Coastal Act came into effect. Locals fear the law will make it impossible to build shoreline protection devices—which include revetments and even piers—for homes built after that date.

Sarah Newkirk, a senior coastal project director with the Nature Conservancy, said the definition reflects the coastal commission’s current policy guidance and a reasonable interpretation of the Coastal Act. She said the intent of the bill is to “codify” the commission’s current practice into law.

She also said the bill would not prohibit seawalls for structures built after that date; rather, homeowners seeking protective devices for homes after 1977 would have to undergo a more rigorous permitting process.

In her view, the bill strikes the right balance. “Armoring is a threat to coastal habitat,” she said. “But we recognize people need to protect their homes.” 

Yet Marshall residents are fearful that securing a permit for shoreline protection devices could become an arduous process.

“The East Shore community is strongly against this Bill,” Mary Halley, president of the East Shore Planning Group, wrote in an email to the Light on Tuesday. “As written, AB 1129…threatens the very existence of our coastal communities so we are encouraging all of our coastal neighbors to carpool to Sacramento on April 17 to oppose this ill-conceived measure being rushed through the State Legislature.”

Jeff Loomans, a member of the Seadrift Association, in Stinson Beach, which sent a letter to Assemblyman Mark Levine’s office about the matter, called the bill an “attempt to take away rights” granted to homeowners by the Coastal Act. 

“You have a right to protect a house that is under threat, whether it was built before or after the Coastal Act was passed,” he said.

In its letter, the association also argued that “many coastal commission decisions regarding coastal permits have been based on the interpretation…that once a structure is approved and built it is then an existing structure and is entitled to the protection of a shoreline protection device if that becomes necessary at some future date.”

Rep. Levine, who represents Marin and Sonoma Counties, said he understood his constituents’ concerns. In a conversation with the Light, he emphasized that the bill was in its early stages and that “every detail is open for scrutiny during the legislative process.” That process, he said, was important to protect communities from “the potential for overreach.”

But Ms. Newkirk pointed to the coastal commission’s sea-level rise policy guidance, which was approved by the commission unanimously in August 2015, which evaluates how to interpret the Coastal Act’s edicts on seawalls and other shoreline protection devices. 

That guidance report says “…the most reasonable and straight-forward interpretation of Coastal Act Sections 30235 and 30253”—sections that talk about existing structures and new development—“is that they evince a broad legislative intent to allow shoreline protection for development that was in existence when the Coastal Act was passed, but avoid such protective structures for new development now subject to the Act.”

West Marin residents questioned the same guidance during recent hearings on the county’s Local Coastal Program, an eight-year process that has still not been completed. 

Just last November, residents from Marshall and Stinson Beach were worried about how the program would define “redevelopment,” a concept that refers to when a home has been so drastically changed that it is considered a new

As part of the Local Coastal Program update, coastal commission staff had recommended tracking changes that could lead to redevelopment status retroactively from 1977. Though they said the coastal commission had been using such a definition for other areas, Marin’s Community Development Agency protested the change, arguing that it would be incredibly difficult to backtrack and that the change could dissuade people from making repairs to their homes.

As part of the coastal program update, the county is also strongly advocating for easing the process of raising homes onto piers, viewing that as an essential sea-level rise adaptation strategy that saves developments while allowing rising waters to come in.

Although some commissioners indicated that they were amenable to negotiating the issue with the county, the commission has not yet voted on that section of the coastal program.