Developing a model ordinance for California local governments to integrate sea-level rise adaptation into existing land use plan

Focus Areas > Current Projects > Developing a model ordinance
Sean Hecht and Megan Herzog
Frankel Environmental Law Program, UCLA School of Law

Research projects that sea levels along most of the California coast will rise 5 to 24 inches above 2000 levels by 2050 (NRC, 2012). Rising sea levels threaten thousands of California coastal residents and billions of dollars of coastal property with increased risk of flooding, storm damage, shoreline erosion, saltwater intrusion, and wetland loss (NRC, 2012; CNRA, 2009; IPCC, 2007). California communities need to adapt, or adjust to new sea level conditions by building the capacity for resilience and minimizing potential vulnerability. The California coastline supports thousands of private homes, vast amounts of public infrastructure, coastal power plants, iconic sandy beaches, piers, harbors, and wetlands—all of which may be vulnerable to the adverse impacts of sea level rise. Adaptation choices inevitably will result in tradeoffs between the preservation of coastal ecosystems, which must migrate landward to survive inundation, and the protection of coastal development.

Because local governments largely determine the shape of development on our coastline through their land-use plans, regulations, and implementing decisions, local governments play the most important role in sea level rise adaptation. Sea level rise adaptation tools generally fall into the three categories of protection, accommodation, and retreat (Byrne, 2012 and Grannis, et al. 2012).  Guidance about the steps involved in an adaptation planning process (Cal EMA, 2012) and available adaptation tools (Grannis, 2011; CNRA, 2009) are available to local governments. Importantly, however, California local governments lack resources, tools, and guidance to assist them in tackling one of the most complex adaptation challenges: how to integrate adaptation strategies into existing local coastal land use regulations. 

In order to be effective, local governments must implement adaptation plans through new or amended local ordinances that put selected adaptation tools (such as setbacks or flood protection requirements) into practice. Those ordinances must comply with various federal and state planning and floodplain management requirements, and must be designed to work with existing general plans, local coastal zoning and permitting regulations, and other preexisting local zoning and planning laws. Currently, California local governments have no state-specific “best practices” example from which to model their own implementing ordinances. This proposed project propose to do exactly that – a model sea level rise overlay zone ordinance that will demonstrate how a local government can incorporate those designations into its laws effectively.

The proposed project will apply the tripartite adaptation framework to real-world adaptation planning efforts in California. Additionally, the project will expand prior research by the PIs by reviewing and incorporating the National Flood Insurance Program’s (NFIP) mandatory provisions and NFIP Community Rating System Coordinator’s Manual (FEMA, 2013), which were recently updated to reflect the need to respond to sea level rise. The updated NFIP Community Rating System Coordinator’s Manual now incorporates community efforts to take climate change impacts, including sea-level rise, into account. The model ordinance will help local governments to incorporate the requirements and incentives of the NFIP’s programs into their local land-use plans.

Facilitating local implementation of sea level rise adaptation strategies provides important benefit to coastal communities. Tools like a model sea level rise overlay zone ordinance that facilitate swift, effective implementation of local adaptation strategies will support resilient communities and economies by helping to mitigate the potentially disastrous impacts of sea level rise on the populated and developed California coast, and helping to protect resources in undeveloped coastal areas.

2015 Research Update:

The project has made tremendous progress, and after extensive research into existing land use plans and California Coastal Commission guidelines, has developed a draft model ordinance which it will test in two volunteer jurisdictions: Sonoma County and the City of Oxnard.

To learn more, view the AdaptLA webinar: Legal Issues & Opportunities for Sea Level Rise Planning in California: A Primer for Non-Lawyers - September 16, 2015 at

Previously Funded Research
  • USC Sea Grant
  • 3454 Trousdale Pkwy, CAS 200
  • Los Angeles, CA 90089-0373
  • (213) 740 - 1961