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Battle Over San Francisco's Coastal Development Sparks Statewide Concerns

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A view of a residential neighborhood with a sandy coastline on the other side of a road.
A sandy path leads from Ocean Beach to the Great Highway and the Sunset District in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A feud over balancing housing needs and preserving the California coast as seas rise is brewing along the western shores of San Francisco.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill — Senate Bill 951 — in mid-January that aims to remove urban San Francisco from the protections of the California Coastal Commission. He said his bill would “aid cities’ efforts to meet state housing goals by refining the commission’s role in housing approvals and permitting. Removing San Francisco from the commission’s tight regulations is about making it easier to build affordable housing in the city when dealing with a housing crisis.”

The agency regulates land and water use in the coastal zone — the boundary varies, but in San Francisco, it rides the coast and extends a few blocks into the city — including developing and preparing this area for rising sea levels.

“Not enough housing is getting built, particularly, that’s affordable to working-class people,” Wiener said. “We need to make sure that all parts of San Francisco and all parts of California are doing their fair share.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed sponsored the bill and said in a press release that barriers to development need removal, even at the state level.

“This is the kind of surgical, smart policy we need to expand housing opportunities while still being strong protectors of our natural environment,” she said.

Wiener said he introduced the bill to make sure the city gets ahead of looming housing affordability issues.

“We should be able to have new housing in this area without giving a tool to anti-housing obstructionists so that they can abuse the Coastal Commission process to try to kill new housing,” he said.

‘The precedent is dangerous and scary’

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on the other hand, have ridiculed the plan, saying the bill is shortsighted, favors developers and would limit the commission’s power to prepare the city for future sea-level rise. The Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee approved a resolution opposing Wieners’ bill, and the Board of Supervisors voted by a veto-proof majority to support it.

Board President Aaron Peskin said Wiener overstepped and didn’t have “any idea that there would be this kind of a backlash.”

“The danger here goes far beyond a boundary adjustment in San Francisco County,” he said. “It just signals to developers that they can go to their state senator and start chopping apart one of California’s most cherished pieces of law. The precedent is dangerous and scary, and it’s got to be stopped now.”

While Wiener says the bill is about creating affordable housing, Peskin believes Wiener’s bill is about permitting a 50-story high-rise planned for the Outer Sunset.

“Senator Wiener wants to take that property out of the coastal zone,” he said. “The Coastal Commission hasn’t opposed that project but has the right to review that project. I think he wants to be able to pursue any kind of development along the Pacific Ocean.”

Wiener refutes this, saying the Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods are not zoned for high-rise development and “the bill doesn’t touch zoning.” Development in these neighborhoods is a “strategy to reduce emissions and fight climate change.”

“Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and living in dense urban communities allows people to drive less,” he said.

Climate experts and coastal public officials across the state believe this idea would have statewide ramifications and could create a domino effect with other cities and counties following. They argue it could weaken the commission’s power to protect shoreline public access, regulate proposed development and plan for sea-level rise.

The bill would “set a political precedent,” said UC Davis’ Mark Lubell, who studies the nexus between governance and rising seas. “I don’t think it’s a good strategy to try to erode [laws] that have statewide benefit for the very narrow local benefits for the housing development process.”

A surfer heads toward the water in tall grass with the ocean stretching out to a cloudy gray horizon.
A surfer watches the waves at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Lubell said a bill like this will not solve San Francisco’s housing crisis; instead, “It is going to take a regional approach that considers all of the housing opportunities across the entire Bay area.”

Evan Rosen is a San Francisco resident who lives in the Parkside Neighborhood within the Sunset District. At a recent supervisor’s meeting, he stood alongside a long line of opponents to Wiener’s bill. He said it would be “undoubtedly the first step towards gutting the Coastal Commission’s authority.”

“It would seem that [SB] 951 was crafted to begin turning Ocean Beach into Miami Beach,” he said. “As San Franciscans, we must prevent this from happening.”

The beach will ‘ultimately disappear’

The California Coastal Commission is the state’s leading voice in planning for sea-level rise and policy experts and lawmakers said the new bill threatens that authority.

Wiener’s bill would redraw the coastal zone boundary in San Francisco, removing portions of the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, a portion of Golden Gate Park, and other tweaks. He said the newly redrawn coastal zone would be limited to the beach up to the Great Highway. It would also narrow the types of coastal development permits the commission can appeal, which, Wiener said, “restricts the ability of local governments to swiftly move forward on projects that are within the listed permitted uses.”

Gabriel Gabbert and his dog Kali stand along the Great Highway in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Narrowing the coastal zone in this way would dramatically reduce the state’s role in important planning efforts for western San Francisco, particularly how that stretch of coastal area adapts to sea-level rise,” said Sean Drake, a senior legislative analyst for the commission.

Drake said the bill would also limit how the commission can protect much of the critical infrastructure along the Great Highway, businesses and residential development. The coastal zone extends approximately four blocks into the city and encompasses about 6% of the city’s land area.

“As sea levels rise with little opportunity to implement comprehensive resiliency strategies, Ocean Beach will likely shrink against the exterior of the Great Highway and ultimately disappear,” he said.

Last week, the Coastal Commission voted unanimously to oppose the bill unless amended. Drake said the commission is working with the city and Wieners’s office to devise a solution that doesn’t include legislation.

Wiener said he is working with the commission and the San Francisco Planning Department on a compromise plan that would protect the coast while “having a pro-housing stance.”

Laura Walsh, California policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation, lives in the Outer Sunset neighborhood and argues that the Coastal Commission is a needed authority for jurisdictions like San Francisco to plan for the looming climate threat.

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“This is an environmental law that has kept our coastline in California safe for the public in light of sea-level rise,” she said. “It’s not something we want to be tweaking or eliminating boundaries around.”

State Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), who represents around 20% of the coast from north of Santa Cruz to just south past Arroyo Grande, said Wiener’s bill “is a slippery slope” for developers to build in areas prone to flooding.

“In my case, it would unleash different developers and other people on me, asking me to exempt wherever their project is going to be from the coastal zone,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s a good precedent.”

Laird applauds Wiener for taking action on the housing issue in San Francisco but said his idea would have negative implications for much of the coast.

“I hope that he can find a way to address it in San Francisco rather than bringing in the coastal zone of all the rest of our districts in an animated discussion about how to protect the coast,” he said.

‘People who want to obstruct new housing’

Wiener said groups who oppose new housing easily manipulate the commission and use the planning process to stop or delay needed development in cities like San Francisco.

“People who want to obstruct new housing on the west side of San Francisco have now figured out that they can use the Coastal Commission process to delay and potentially obstruct new housing,” he said. “That is not okay.”

The commission refutes the idea that its processes delay or obstruct new housing.  Commission Legislative Director Sarah Christie said the commission certified San Francisco’s local coastal plan in 1986, and since then, there have only been two projects appealed to the commission, one of which had to do with housing. 

“The only appeal of a San Francisco housing project was in 1988, and the Commission dismissed it the month after it was filed,” she said. “This bill is a problem masquerading as a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Wiener believes the future of development on the western shore of San Francisco is at risk if the commission continues to hold power over parts of the neighborhoods. But environmental organizations like Azul, a Latinx ocean conservation group, said the commission has not blocked many housing projects in the city.

“We need more affordable housing, and we think that the Coastal Commission has in the past been a tool to enforce and push for that,” said Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, founder and executive director of Azul. “We’re not sure why Wiener’s trying to weaken something that’s worked in the past for something that doesn’t seem the solution to that particular problem.”

Caryl Hart, chair of the commission, said affordable housing within the coastal zone is a mutual goal of the commission, the board of supervisors, environmental groups and Wiener.

“When we can come together, we can create the benefits for California that are severely needed,” she said.

A man walks toward Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2024 (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Richmond neighborhood resident Jean Barish, who started going to Ocean Beach in high school decades ago, stopping Wiener’s bill is about preserving access to the coast.

“My experience at the beach would significantly change if there were 15- and 20-story high-rises lining the ocean,” she said. “There would be a lot more traffic because those people would be coming in and going out. It just wouldn’t have the quiet, peaceful quality I came to love.”

This story was updated with additional comments from Sen. Wiener and officials with the Coastal Commission.

KQED’s Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed reporting to this story.

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