Coastal Zone Reforms Offer False Choices Between Homes and Protections

As someone who has had the honor of representing the city of Santa Cruz in a variety of public offices over several decades, I feel called to wade into the current debate over housing production in the coastal zone.

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley. CalMatters Photo.

Some members of the Legislature have blamed the state’s high cost of housing (in part) on the California Coastal Act, the landmark law that has made our coastline the envy of the nation. They argue that the law is standing in the way of badly needed new development in beach communities, and the solution is to simply exempt housing projects from the Coastal Act.

But California doesn’t need to sacrifice coastal protection for new housing. That’s a false choice. We can increase density in coastal cities in a way that’s also environmentally responsible.

Santa Cruz is already doing it.

A few years ago, the city decided to work with the California Coastal Commission to update its coastal land-use plan, allowing for increased downtown density while also promoting public access and protecting natural resources. It took a minute, but now we have a plan that is facilitating urban infill growth without sacrificing the very resources that make Santa Cruz a great place to live.

Over the last Regional Housing Needs Allocation cycle, Santa Cruz approved thousands of new units with more on the way. More than half of those new housing units are in the four affordable categories established by state government. Just last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom designated Santa Cruz as a “Prohousing city” for its “commitment to housing-forward policies.”

The Coastal Act didn’t impede that progress — it informed it.

Californians have made it clear that we cherish our coastline, whether for recreation, inspiration or simply for its stunning natural beauty. Things have changed since voters created the Coastal Commission in 1972, but public support hasn’t.

A 2023 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that an overwhelming majority of residents believe oceans and beaches are “very important to the economy and quality of life for the state’s future.”

Most people are surprised to learn that the Coastal Act originally included policies to protect and provide affordable housing. The commission approved about 1,000 deed-restricted affordable units annually, and prevented the demolition of another 1,200 existing affordable bungalows and duplexes.

Unfortunately, the Legislature rescinded that authority in 1982, after just five years of implementation. You have to wonder what the state of affordable housing would look like today if the Commission had been able to continue those efforts over the last 50 years.

Developers and their legislative champions have the wrong target. The Coastal Act isn’t the problem — it’s a potential solution.

California lawmakers should consider ways to strengthen the Coastal Act to advance housing goals. The Coastal Commission is a powerful agency that wants to be part of the solution and could be if they had the authority.

In the meantime, locally elected leaders can start retooling their coastal land use plans to prepare for the housing their communities need in ways that respect our state’s most iconic landscape.

All it takes is imagination and political will.

Fred Keeley is the mayor of Santa Cruz. He has previously served as a state assemblymember, Santa Cruz County treasurer and county supervisor.

This op-ed is part of California Voices, a commentary forum aiming to broaden understanding of the state and spotlight Californians directly impacted by policy or its absence.



  1. Santa Cruz didn’t pay any attention to the California Coastal Act when it gave tickets to surfers (for surfing). It didn’t care about the Coastal Act when it issued edicts denying beach access from 11-5 during the Covid mania.

    Santa Cruz didn’t follow the U. S. Constitution when it issued its eviction moratorium. Maybe a combination of eviction moratorium plus ticketing beachgoers (just for being there) would solve the problem of housing affordability in the coastal zone permanently, at least in the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz.

    Fred wants to build 18-story penthouses within 1 mile of the beach with no parking and tax the community to subsidize them. All it takes is imagination and political will and developers will fill his campaign coffers.

  2. Thank you Mayor Keeley. But the Sacramento politicians attacked our Coastal Act and Coastal Commission this year, and were successfully fought down, but you know more than anyone else that this is their plan – keep trying every year to eliminate any rules that annoy their donors (i.e. developers/speculators), now including the Coastal Act. They made it very clear that the war has just started, and you know more than anyone else that the only way to fight this is to pass a Constitutional Amendment to stop Sacramento from deregulating land use in California by eliminating annoying (to them) the Coastal Act and CEQA.
    Join our movement with Our Neighborhood Voices which is trying to get an Initiative on the ballot to stop the Sacramento land grab.

  3. Thank you Mayor Keeley for expressing what too few of us know. The California state legislators are no longer representing the voters will. They moved to go to the dark side where the money lies. Our voices are no longer being heard in Washington or California or in a lot of other states by either of the parties. Our only hope is to find some new people to run for office and hope when they are elected they will listen to us. We need an open process in Washington and Sacramento. We can start by supporting a state constitutional ballot initiative to reverse the trend. Find out about the efforts to write and pass it at

  4. Ms. Candell, you remind many, or perhaps introduce something they needed for ages to realize, about speculation in addition to development interests, and big money including Big Tech behind it. The Solano County enterprise where the Bay Area’s and Sacramento area’s exurban commuter shed overlap cannot be the only site. Be aware that the Monterey Bay area is sited where it easily could become a national-class metro area and compete with if not sometime outdo San Diego (itself a giant but sleeper #2 metro) since it could reach to Salinas and up the valley, plus reach across to the Bay Area’s outer reaches all around Gilroy for several miles in so many directions. That’s just one more example. You could add choice parts of the state not yet developed elsewhere but for California’s decline and characteristics now that are detrimental to many. (The Sacramento Valley remains terra incognita to this day and what’s known most recently in the news isn’t exactly good to know.)

    An astute media would first, be digging into this subject (with Wall Street and the big money behind housing acquisition and build-to-rent development, etc., also in speculation and “land banking”) and also what might be sought to do what is needed anyway if the climate changes badly enough, boosting the water supply to the southern sixty per cent of the state where nearly all the people are.

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