Promise of California Coastal Act hard to keep

The California Coastal Act, which turned 40 this year, is a remarkable law. Passed during the heyday of environmental laws in the 1970s, during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor, it ambitiously states that “maximum access” to the California coast “shall be provided for all the people.” Forty years later, that promise is proving difficult to keep.

California’s coast remains central to our identity, but too many Californians are not able to enjoy the coast as much as they would like. Our state is now facing a new generation of coastal access challenges that cannot be solved by the California Coastal Commission alone with its authority under the coastal act.

A statewide survey we conducted this fall with the Field Poll found that Californians care as deeply as ever about the state’s coast and ocean and regularly go to the beach. But access is a growing challenge, from direct obstacles put in the path of coastal access points by private landowners such as at Martins Beach near Half Moon Bay, to the cost of visiting and staying overnight in coastal communities, traffic congestion, and limited public transportation options for getting to the coast.

Solving these challenges and providing access to the coast for all the people will require communities and leaders from the coast and inland communities, the private sector, government agencies, nonprofits and philanthropy as well as the Coastal Commission to work together to fulfill the promise of the coastal act over the next 40 years.

There is overwhelming concern among Californians about access to the coast and support for keeping the coastal act’s promise of access for all.

A vast majority of voters in the state — 90 percent — told our Field Poll that the condition of the ocean and beaches in California is important to them personally, with 57 percent saying it is “very important.” There is broad agreement across voter subgroups about the importance of the coast, with majorities of voters of all ages, ethnicities and income groups, as well as voters in coastal counties and inland counties, confirming that the condition of California’s oceans and beaches is important to them.

Three out of four California voters — 77 percent — visit the coast at least once a year, and many visit more often. One in four say that they visit the coast once a month or more, while another 38 percent visit several times a year. Voters under age 40, parents of children under age 18, and those residing in coastal counties are more likely than others to make frequent visits.

But despite the Coastal Act’s guarantee of access for all Californians, our poll found that significant barriers remain. Access to the coast was cited as a problem by 62 percent of voters. Limited affordable options for parking are seen as a problem by 78 percent of voters. And 75 percent cited limited options for affordable overnight accommodations, which was rated a big problem at a higher rate by Latino voters and families with children. Limited public transit options were cited as important by 68 percent of voters.

Central Valley voters are less likely to visit the coast, with 39 percent visiting less than once a year or never, compared to the 23 percent of all Californians who visit the coast infrequently, if at all. African Americans are also less likely to visit the coast, with 33 percent visiting less than once a year or never, and 30 percent of those indicating that not knowing how to swim is one reason they don’t go to the beach more often. Income is also a factor. Voters with annual household incomes of $60,000 or more are more likely than those earning less than $40,000 to visit the coast frequently.

We also conducted a survey of more than 1,000 beachgoers this summer and found that the overall cost of visiting the coast is more of a limiting factor for people between 30 and 39 years old and families with children, and lack of affordable options for overnight stays is more of a factor for people 18 to 39 years old and families with children.

Despite the different challenges people face visiting the coast, we found that the primary reasons that people come to the coast are widely shared across all demographic groups. They come to relax and enjoy the scenery, and so their children can play. They walk and wade or swim in the surf. When they get to the beach, they want clean sand and water, and a few basic amenities such as trash cans, restrooms and parking.

There are many organizations around the state, in coastal and inland communities, advocating for solutions to the complicated challenges of providing coastal access for all today. Brown Girl Surf, based in Oakland, is one of these inspiring efforts. In just two years, it has connected 131 girls from Oakland, San Francisco, and the South Bay to the coast and ocean through surfing. Many of them had never visited the coast, despite living nearby.

The group’s co-founder and executive director, Mira Manickam-Shirley, says that to meet today’s coastal access challenges, “we have to go beyond technical solutions to thinking about community and everyday culture.” She adds that her program helps girls see “that the ocean is not someone else’s place. It’s theirs. And they have a way to access it, to see themselves reflected there, and enjoy it.”

California’s coast and beaches are among our most important democratic spaces. Despite our differences, we all share a love of the coast and many of the same desires and reasons for coming to the beach. Under the California Coastal Act, our beaches are open to all of us. We need to make sure they are accessible to everyone.

Jon Christensen is an environmental historian in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Philip King is an economist at San Francisco State University. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at http://bit.ly/SFChronicleletters.

Survey online

For more information about the Field Poll poll and survey: www.ioes.ucla.edu/project/coastal-access-california

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Chris Alexakispolicy, parks, water