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You, Cash-Strapped Californian, Are Entitled To A Beach Vacation. Here's How That Could Happen

Looking out from a rental cottage at Crystal Cove State Park. (Photo by tinyfroglet/Flickr CC)
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It's hard to believe when driving past the gated beachfront mansions of Malibu, but every single Californian has the right to fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves -- at least for a few nights.

The 1976 Coastal Act requires the state to "maximize public access to and along the coast." That includes protecting and encouraging "lower cost" accommodations.

But coastal authorities have had a hard time keeping that promise given that California's beachfront property is among the most valuable in the country.

Now, prodded by a 2017 law, authorities at the Coastal Conservancy have the outlines of a plan called: "Explore the Coast Overnight." Its goal is to make beach vacations a more realistic option for lower-income Californians.

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The first order of business was to assess the state of lower-cost lodging along the coast, and plot out a path for expanding it and breaking down the barriers that keep lower-income households and communities of color from using it.

The agency's draft assessment was released earlier this month.

Here's what you need to know about California's coastal access problems and how you can help craft a solution.

Is the California coast really public?

Yes. In theory, California's beaches are owned collectively by we, the residents. The Coastal Commission has authority over development within what's known as the "coastal zone," which is generally half a mile inland from the mean high tide line.

The Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy are sister agencies whose mandate is to protect the coast and maximize public access.

Is this just about physical access?

No. While fights over seawalls in Laguna Beach and gated-off beachfronts in Malibu make headlines, other barriers to accessing the beach get less attention.

In a UCLA survey of California voters, respondents noted the high cost of parking and the lack of affordable accommodations as major barriers to enjoying the coast. The average amount people said they were willing to pay per night was $117.65.

This and a similar survey commissioned by the Coastal Conservancy found that young people, people of color, lower-income households and families with children are less likely to stay overnight at the beach.

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Source: Coastal Conservancy report, "Explore the Coast Overnight Assessment" (2018).

What are my options for lower-cost lodging?

Within about 1.5 miles of the beach, Southern California has a combined 5,842 motel rooms, cabins, hostel beds and camping spots, according to a 2016 count commissioned by the Coastal Conservancy. "Lower-cost" here is defined as rooms that cost no more than $112 per day year-round or $123 per day in the summer.

About two-thirds of all lower-cost options are in the tourist mecca of San Diego. Los Angeles County has just 547 lower-cost rooms available for visitors along the coast.

Meanwhile, Southern California is home to 2.8 million low-income households, and the Central Valley is home to another 1.1 million low-income households.

Source: Coastal Conservancy report, "Explore the Coast Overnight Assessment" (2018).

Most lower-cost lodging options along the California coast, 62 percent, are camping or RV sites. Another 35 percent are hotel and motel rooms. Hostel beds make up just 3 percent.

Source: Coastal Conservancy report, "Explore the Coast Overnight Assessment" (2018).

What if I don't like camping, or don't have camping gear?

You're not the only one. Many people would rather stay at a hotel. But most hotels and motels are privately owned, and can make more money by catering to higher-income clients.

In a survey, the Coastal Conservancy found the biggest reception for "camping indoors," i.e., in a cabin or bunkhouse.

Younger people, and people with lower incomes, were also more likely to be willing to share a bathroom in order to afford a vacation at the coast.

The conservancy, and private groups working to improve coastal access, see increasing cabins and hostels as the best and most practical way to meet the public's needs.

A cabin at Unity Lake State Park in Baker County, Oregon. Publicly-owned, rentable cabins are catching on as a gateway to the outdoors for young adults, urbanites and under-resourced communities. ((Photo by Baker County Tourism - CC))

What else?

Yurts, which have become popular at state-run campgrounds, are one option. Semi-permanent "RV cabins," which could be hooked up to electricity, water and sewer, are another.

College dorms are also an option. The Coastal Conservancy notes that Pepperdine University in Malibu already offers dorm lodging to some groups in the summertime and could be open to expanding its programs.

These sound like good ideas. But is there likely to be any new, low-cost lodging in the near future?

Yes. A few projects are in the works in SoCal:

Santa Monica Hostel: Hostelling International USA is adding approximately 24 rooms to its Santa Monica hostel, according to general manager Kimberly Turner. She said the expansion could be completed by 2021.

Crystal Cove Historic Beach Cottages: Restoration is underway on an additional 17 beachfront cottages at Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County. They're expected to be ready to rent in 2023.

Those will supplement the 29 cottages that are already for rent there, with prices ranging from $37 for a two-person dorm to $261 for a cottage that sleeps nine.

Silver Strand State Beach: The California Department of Parks and Recreation is looking into placing mobile cabins at this beach just south of Coronado Island in San Diego. The rentable cabins could sit on underused parking space during the winter slow season.

One of the restored cottages at Crystal Cove SP. (Photo by dj venus/Flickr CC)

Won't people who can actually afford to pay more just snap up the cheaper lodging options?

It's definitely a concern among advocates for expanded coastal access. Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, founder of coastal environmental justice group Azul, said she and other advocates have tossed around the idea of offering priority for lower-cost lodging, for example, to households that receive CalFresh benefits.

"We're trying to figure out what that looks like," she said.

The Coastal Conservancy also recognizes the need to break down barriers to access for lower-income households and other groups that find it hard to enjoy the coast. Some ideas It's considering are:

  • Vouchers and subsidized lodging for under-resourced groups;
  • Reservation set-asides that would let targeted groups avoid the online reservation rush;
  • Providing transportation and camping equipment.

Is there money for this?

Yes. The Conservancy laid out a list of funding streams it can draw on for its Explore the Coast Overnight program. These include state bond funds, Prop 68 parks and recreation monies, and in-lieu fees collected by the Coastal Commission from developments in the coastal zone.

You can read the Coastal Conservancy's full report on lower-cost lodging here. And let 'em know what you think about the plan. The agency is accepting public comments until Jan. 25.