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Real Estate In the Coastal Zone? What to Consider

Santa Cruz County Coastal Zone Map:


What is the Coastal Commission?


The California coast is a unique treasure loved by locals and visitors alike. To protect California’s coast and ocean for present and future generations, citizens came together in 1972 to enact the The California Coastal Conservation Initiative. Through this initiative, the Coastal Commission came into being. Four years later, the State Legislature enacted the California Coastal Act, which is the primary law that governs the decisions of the Coastal Commission. The Act outlines, among other things, standards for development within the Coastal Zone.


The Coastal Zone encompasses 1.5 million acres of land and can stretch anywhere from 3 to 5 miles at sea to an inland boundary. In present-day, if a local municipality has land in the designated Coastal Zone either the state-wide Coastal Commission or a Local Coastal Program (LCP) governs the use of land within that area. Santa Cruz County, Santa Cruz City, Watsonville, and Capitola all have their own Local Coastal Programs.


Under the Coastal Act “coastal property development” covers a broad spectrum of activities related to building and improving property. All costal development is regulated by the local or state wide coastal commission, meaning a majority of property-alterations must be approved by the LCP that has jurisdiction over that area or by the Coastal Commission. If you have a project in mind for a property in the coastal zone, we suggest contacting your local LCP to learn more about the feasibility of the work. Under certain circumstances, you may appeal the LCP’s decision either to the LCP directly or the Coastal Commission.


The Santa Cruz County Costal Zone


In Santa Cruz County, the coastal zone extends about five miles inland from the North Coast. From Natural Bridges to 41st Avenue in Capitola, it extends about 0.6 miles inland. From Capitola to the south County boundary, it extends to Highway One.


To find out if your parcel is within the coastal zone, follow the instructions provided in this link.


In unincorporated Santa Cruz County, you must obtain a level 5 permit if you wish do to any of the following:

  • Construction, reconstruction, size alteration, or demolition of a structure
  • Grading, removing, placement, and extraction of any earth material
  • Subdivision and minor land division
  • Change in the density or intensity of land use
  • Harvesting of major vegetation, except for agriculture and timber harvesting

If you buy property in one of the following neighborhoods, you may have to go through an additional review process because of the unique character of each area:

  • Bonny Doon Special Scenic Area
  • Swanton Road Area
  • Davenport Special Community
  • Harbor Area Special Community
  • East Cliff Village Tourist Area
  • Seacliff Beach Area
  • Rio Del Mar Esplanade


There are exemptions. For example, road repair and landscaping do not require a Coastal Zone permit so long as your property is not located on a beach, wetland, within 50 feet of a coastal bluff, or in one of the unique neighborhoods listed above. To see a full list of exemptions, and additional information about the unincorporated Santa Cruz County Coastal Zone program, follow this link.


If you are located in an incorporated area in Santa Cruz County, we suggest contacting your rspective planning department directly if you are thinking of developing a property in the Coastal Zone.


Other Considerations – Climate Change


Buying or developing a residential or commercial property near the Santa Cruz coast may come with additional risks due to climate change. The National Research Council (NRC) projects that by Year 2100, sea level in California may rise by 4 to 56 in (10 to 143 cm) for areas north of Cape Mendocino and 17 to 66 in (42 to 167 cm) for areas south of Cape Mendocino (NRC 2012). If you are in what the Coastal Commission considers a future-hazardous zone, you may have a more difficult time finishing a project in the near future. This is why thorough research is a must before buying property in this area.

If you have questions or need help with this process, please don’t hesitate to contact us: (831) 600-6550.

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