Few things strike greater fear into the heart of a homeowner than the knowledge that a new room addition or home renovation will require a coastal permit. We all feel the same about this: in most cases, the design idea is simple, the neighbors love the concept and we just barely have enough time and money to get the project off the ground — and then what feels like a brick wall comes between us and our proposed design plans. Fortunately, all it takes is a little familiarity with the Coastal Commission’s objectives and help from an experienced architect to successfully navigate the permit process.

Understanding coastal permits

In order to better understand the coastal permit process, it can be helpful to know a little local history. Back in 1975, the Coastal Zone Management Act established the Coastal Commission with broad powers. Their mission is to preserve access to the coast, including the beaches, estuaries and lagoons. Access is lateral (along the shore), vertical (from the street to the shore), and view access (wherever you can see the ocean, lagoon, or estuary). The goal of the Coastal Commission is a wonderful concept and a gift for the enjoyment of all.

Defining coastal access

The first two forms of access are most significant for homeowners whose property fronts the beach. A simple stair or a dedicated path may be required to get to the beach. For the rest of us, view access is the most common obstacle to coastal building. Many people consider “view access” to include the views from private homes; and although this is a common argument, the coastal permit is not really the centerpiece of that argument. In fact, just about every city, including Del Mar, Solana Beach, and San Diego have their own programs that have been certified by the Coastal Commission. Sometimes and in some locations the Coastal Commission will step in, but our experience has been that we rarely have to go to the Coastal Commission when we play by the rules and work in conjunction with the local authorities.

Working together at the local level

The centerpiece of coastal design involves a presentation to a local planning group, which is a group of citizens who are appointed or run for office, and serve sometimes for years. The design is assembled and submitted to the city, notification letters go to the neighbors, and then we go to a big meeting. As a professional architect I have been on both sides of these presentations — both presenting something I designed, and reviewing work done by others.

With a little thoughtful preparation, a good presentation, and a clear understanding of the character of the neighborhood, a coastal design can be approved rather quickly. Issues like the scale and appearance of the design are quite important, as are the materials, the site planning, and the overall design of the house. A coastal application takes all of this much farther, as the relation of the design to the street and that ever-precious view is extremely important.

As you work towards getting your coastal permit, expect to meet neighbors you barely know, or have rarely spoken with. Expect to see pictures and comments that somehow would not even apply to your house. In short, expect to branch out and learn new things about your community in order to get the job done. The coastal permit process can be time-consuming, frustrating and distracting; but in the end, you can expect a little bit of neighborly gossip about your project — and a consensus about a beautiful design that everyone can be proud of. To learn more about getting coastal permits in San Diego, contact us at Alcorn & Benton Architects today, at www.alcornbenton.com.

by Paul Benton, Architect + Engineer

This article originally appeared in the La Jolla Light on February, 2o13.