Despite the California coast’s reputation as an iconic travel destination, rampant high-end real estate development and rising hotel rates have put overnight stays near the shoreline out of reach for many travelers.
“The cost of staying on the California coast has increased dramatically in recent years, and that cost is particularly impacting the ability of young people, people of color and low-income families to come visit,” said Amy Hutzel, deputy executive officer for the California State Coastal Conservancy.
When the conservancy undertook a statewide poll of 1,200 people a few years back and asked, “Do you ever stay overnight when you visit the California coast?” she said the only group from which a majority said yes were those with $200,000 a year in household income, “55 and over and white.”
California’s coast is far from the only hot destination to draw a well-heeled demographic. But its rapid transformation from egalitarian parkland to luxury playground has put it directly at odds with the California Coastal Act, which was enacted in 1976 and ensures that virtually all California beaches remain open and welcoming to the public.
Jon Christensen, an adjunct assistant professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, said the Coastal Act has two goals. One is to protect the coastal environment, the other is to preserve public access to the coast.
“In the last few years, however, there’s been a real focus on what the barriers to coastal access actually look like,” he said. “Important challenges include developers and billionaires closing off public access and the fact that for about half of Californians, the cost of visiting the coast, particularly staying overnight, just doesn’t make economic sense.”
At the front lines of enforcing the Coastal Act is the California Coastal Commission, which appears to have ramped up its scrutiny of the hospitality sector, levying major fines against upscale hotels in recent months.
In May, the commission fined developer Sunshine Enterprises a record $15.6 million after the company opened a Santa Monica hotel. Sunshine was originally approved to construct lower-cost accommodations on the site, which had previously been home to a Travelodge and the Pacific Sands motel. Instead, the commission said, the group abandoned those plans entirely, opening the boutique Shore Hotel in 2012. As of this month, room rates there started at $350 to $430 per night.
Meanwhile, this past June, news broke that the commission had fined the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, located less than an hour south of San Francisco, $1.6 million, accusing the property, which often charges $1,000 per night for king rooms, of impeding public access to the beach.
Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for the global ocean and beach preservation nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, said, “The way that the Ritz-Carlton is built, adjacent to the beach path, it looks like the beach belongs to the hotel.”
The foundation testified at commission hearings involving both the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay and the Shore Hotel.
“As part of the conditions for allowing the hotel to be built where they built it,” Savage said, the developers of the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay were required “to provide a certain number of public parking spaces and clear signage saying that there’s public parking and a public beach. They didn’t do that. If you’re a casual visitor to the coast and you don’t know the law, you’d likely feel pretty intimidated. … You shouldn’t have to be versed in California law just to visit the beach.”
While the commission’s recent efforts have served as a stern warning to coastal developers, real estate owners and hoteliers, most experts agree that the issue isn’t likely be solved by regulatory crackdowns alone.
For the conservancy, expansion of lower-cost overnight options — including campgrounds, hostels and more accessibly priced hotels and motels — plays an integral role in keeping the coast open and within reach.
In October 2017, the state passed a law instructing the conservancy to assess the availability of lower-cost coastal accommodations in California. The resulting study found a severe lack of diverse price points.
The conservancy’s Hutzel said, “There are just under 65,000 coastal accommodations that are on or very near the coast, and approximately just over 13,000 were qualified as lower-cost when we did our assessment. And most of that 13,000 were campsites, so there’s just not a lot out there.” Hutzel estimated that most campground accommodations start at around $25 to $50 per night.
Following the study, California voters in June 2018 passed Proposition 68, authorizing a state resources bond that allocates $60 million to finance lower-cost coastal accommodations. The conservancy is to receive $30 million to invest in additional overnight options. Another $30 million goes to California’s state parks system, which owns about a third of the coastal region, to expand and build new campgrounds and other accommodations. The conservancy put out a request for proposals this summer.
“With these public funds, we can work with a wide array of entities, including public agencies and nonprofits like Hostelling International or Crystal Cove Conservancy, which provide lower-cost offerings on the coast,” Hutzel said. “A likely scenario for new developments could be some number of rooms that are at market rate and some number that are lower cost.”
UCLA’s Christensen said that both nonprofits and government agencies will have to work creatively with the private sector and with local communities if any meaningful changes are to happen.
“I think there is great progress being made, but if the private sector and coastal communities don’t also embrace this movement and figure out how to make it work, it’s going to be very difficult,” Christensen said.
“It’s discouraging when you see private investors flouting the law. They’re benefiting tremendously from more than 40 years of public dedication to protecting the coast,” he said.
“And the same goes for communities that want to maintain some kind of exclusivity. It’s discouraging that they would want to take something that belongs to all Californians and just make it exclusively available to them.”