Coastal Scenic and Visual Resources

Coastal Scenic and Visual Resources Basics

The Coastal Act requires scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas to be considered and protected as a resource of public importance. Development is also required to be sited and designed to protect public views to and along the ocean and other scenic areas. Depending on the characteristics of the site and surrounding area, scenic resources can include sandy beaches and blue water ocean views, rocky headlands and shorelines, coastal bluffs, coastal lagoons and marshlands, rural farmlands and pasturelands, and open or forested slopes, hillsides, ridgelines and mountain tops, as well as more urbanized harbors and waterfront areas. Cultural features set in scenic areas and other historic or natural points of interest visible from public viewing areas or scenic corridors may also be considered scenic resources. Despite Coastal Act protections, incremental approval of individual developments and variances that include minor additions and maintenance activities have resulted, over time, in the cumulative degradation of public views and coastal scenic resources.

Coastal issues that may need to be addressed during project development could include:

  • Blocking or altering bluewater views
  • Loss or alteration of views to open space, rural areas, or inland hillsides and mountains
  • Landform alteration through grading and earthwork
  • Compatibility with, and subordination to, surrounding areas and change in character
  • Night lighting and glare
  • Design considerations such as guardrail type and height, down drain color, retaining wall or viaduct concrete color, and aesthetic treatments (rock or earth textured concrete)
  • Landscaping and planting plans

Coastal Act Policies Related to Coastal Scenic and Visual Resources

  • Coastal Act Section 30251 states the scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas shall be considered and protected as a resource of public importance. Permitted development shall be sited and designed to protect views to and along the ocean and scenic coastal areas, to minimize the alteration of natural land forms, to be visually compatible with the character of surrounding areas, and, where feasible, to restore and enhance visual quality in visually degraded areas. New development in highly scenic areas such as those designated in the California Coastline Preservation and Recreation Plan prepared by the Department of Parks and Recreation and by local government shall be subordinate to the character of its setting.

Coastal Scenic and Visual Resources considerations when developing your project and preparing to submit a coastal development permit

When applying for a CDP from the California Coastal Commission (Commission) or a local agency where project development may result in impacts to visual resources due to project location, size, or scale, it is critical to provide a thorough assessment of coastal view impacts and to address potential view impacts as early as possible in project planning. In addition to Coastal Act policy requirements, a local government’s certified Local Coastal Program (LCP) may also have more specific special provisions that must be considered for siting and design, such as particular height limitations, protecting particular view corridors and vantage points, or protecting the community character of certain areas.

Key considerations to help determine your project’s consistency with applicable visual and scenic resource protection policies and its potential for permit approval include:

  • Baseline: Consider the context of the existing scenery and coastal visual resources. In addition to project plans, it may be necessary to provide baseline data showing existing and proposed conditions, such as keyed site photographs, visual simulations, or a line-of-sight analysis. If relevant to the project, document existing lighting and signage to demonstrate the change from existing to proposed conditions. Information may be required to show how the size and scale of the proposed development compares with the existing visual baseline and site-specific visual context. For example, consider whether the landscape is rural or urban, whether there will be a visual change to an identified scenic resource such as a historic bridge, whether there are existing unobstructed ocean views that may be affected, or whether proposed new lighting in locations with outdated or no lighting will affect dark skies.

  • Alternatives Analysis: Strict Coastal Act protections of scenic coastal resources require a thorough alternatives analysis to determine if a more appropriate alignment or design alternative would be feasible to reduce the potential for impacts on visual and scenic resources. The Commission is required to identify the least environmentally damaging alternative when making findings pertaining to scenic and visual resources.

  • Avoidance and Minimization: The analysis of project impacts on visual resources should take into account avoidance and minimization efforts such as siting and design measures to reduce effects and mitigate to the greatest extent feasible. The use of mitigation measures alone will not ensure that the Commission can approve a project. However, where impacts are unavoidable, the Commission has approved mitigation measures (usually as special conditions of an approved CDP) such as restrictions on the type, amount, and location of new lighting or signage; requirements for an earth-toned color scheme; modifications in the height, scale, or style of the project; limitations on guard rail height or type; utility undergrounding; and other design strategies.
To help streamline the process of rail selection and coastal development permitting, Caltrans and the Commission have developed a guidance document for designing bridge rails and barriers in the coastal zone. Bridge Rails and Barriers: A Reference Guide for Transportation Projects in the Coastal Zone includes fundamental design standards, aesthetic designs and treatments, and design features to ensure safety, versatility, and ease of maintenance.