California's 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) of coastline have been used historically for thousands of years, first by native people and later by explorers in the area. Native Californians have long enjoyed opportunities to experience the state's varied and beautiful beaches, as do visitors. The California Coastal Access Program protects access to the California coastline, ensuring that the construction of private residences along the coastline does not infringe on the ability of the public to access beaches and headlands.
The program is run by the Coastal Commission, which is also responsible for approving building permits on land near the ocean, as well as maintaining environmental quality and acting as a general steward for the land. Under Coastal Access, a permanent easement is arranged for a piece of land, meaning that even if the land is sold or transferred, the easement will not cease to exist. The easement is called a Coastal Access Trail, and landowners must abide by it, allowing members of the public to cross their land to reach the beach.
The process through which land is used for Coastal Access is called public prescriptive right of access. Typically, it begins with a request by a member of the public to create a Coastal Access site. The Coastal Commission evaluates the site, determining how it has been used historically and will continue to be used. If the Coastal Commission believes that it should be turned into a Coastal Access site, the information is sent on to the Attorney General, who will initiate the legal process to create an easement. An individual landowner, usually a land trust, can also make an “offer to dedicate,” offering up an area of land for an easement.
Approximately 50% of California's coastline is accessible through Coastal Access trails, which are clearly marked with signs put up by the Coastal Commission. Most of the signs include the Coastal Access logo of a wave crashing over a set of footprints. Public participation in the Coastal Access Program is extremely important, because it ensures that walking paths and hiking trails near the ocean will continue to be accessible to Californians.
New property owners are sometimes opposed to the existence of a Coastal Access site on their property. Information about the easement must be disclosed at the time of sale, but some landowners are under the impression that they will be able to keep the public out by fencing their land or engaging in other hostile acts. Most landowners are unpleasantly surprised in these situations, as locals are extremely fond of access to their beaches and headlands, and they will not be afraid to take the case to court to ensure that the site remains open.