Achieving Coastal Permitting Approvals Through Development of a Public Works Plan

Permitting in the California Coastal Zone can be complicated, time consuming and expensive for an applicant, particularly when seeking to implement large-scale projects that span multiple jurisdictions or require phased development.

Public Works Plans (PWPs) are an innovative—but little known—approach to streamlining California Coastal Commission permitting for qualifying public projects. A PWP provides a comprehensive permit vehicle for obtaining Commission approval of large or phased public works projects. It provides an alternative to the usual project-by-project permit application process that can require multiple coastal development permits for different components of a project.

Dudek’s April Winecki, the Coastal Practice lead at Dudek, and Alison Evans, a certified environmental planner, have successfully developed PWPs for public agency clients. They said a PWP can require extensive coordination efforts up front, but ultimately can save time and money, and allow agencies, stakeholders, and the public to collaborate on the comprehensive plan.

“The savings are significant for projects that will be phased in over several years, have multiple components, overlap several jurisdictions, or are controversial and likely subject to an extensive appeal process by local decision makers and the Commission,” they said.

Evans said a PWP must be sufficiently detailed regarding the size, kind, intensity, and location of development to allow the Coastal Commission to determine its consistency with the Coastal Act or certified Local Coastal Program (LCP). Consistency can be achieved through avoidance and minimization efforts, design changes and/or mitigation. If improvements proposed in the PWP are inconsistent with the applicable LCP, an amendment may be required, ensuring the PWP is in line with the LCP.

To achieve the necessary level of detail, it is critical to garner participation and active engagement from multiple stakeholders, such as project sponsors, state and federal resource agencies, the California Coastal Commission (CCC), local jurisdictions, and the public. Engagement of the local jurisdictions is a key component to achieving consensus on the format, content, and process for developing and implementing a comprehensive PWP, particularly if amendments to their LCP are required.

Dudek recently helped the California Department of Transportation District 11 (Caltrans) and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) successfully prepare a PWP and Transportation and Resource Enhancement Program (TREP) for the 27-mile-long North Coast Corridor (NCC) in Northern San Diego County. The existing corridor infrastructure is focused on single occupant vehicles and the interstate (I-5) is heavily congested throughout the day including weekends. Additionally, approximately 50% of the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) rail corridor is single track, which creates inefficiency and limits the region’s ability to add new train service. The goal of the NCC PWP/TREP was to develop and entitle an integrated system of rail/transit, highway, bike/pedestrian, and environmental enhancements for the corridor. It allows these improvements to be analyzed as an integrated and coordinated system, with the goal of advancing the suite of improvements so that transportation goals are met in a manner that maintains and enhances public access to coastal resources and recreational facilities, and sensitive coastal resources are protected and enhanced to provide regional benefits.

For the NCC PWP/TREP, numerous meetings and briefings were held in communities along the corridor where members of the public and other stakeholders could provide their feedback on the plan’s development. Working together to identify the shared objectives of all parties involved resulted in the development of integral project elements/features, which may not have otherwise happened with a traditional approach. The $200M comprehensive program has, so far, included, among other things:

  • Restoration of more than 400 acres of coastal wetlands
  • Establishment of endowments for lagoon maintenance
  • Planned addition of a 27-mile continuous bike trail linking coastal and inland cities
  • Community enhancement projects throughout the corridor totaling $50M

Sustained collaboration and ongoing dialogue with multiple local, regional, state, and federal stakeholders, each with their own mandates and concerns, ultimately led to widespread support for the NCC PWP/TREP. The partnership also allowed Caltrans and SANDAG to leverage transportation funds to accomplish regional resource and coastal objectives. In August 2014, the CCC unanimously approved and certified the NCC PWP/TREP, which is the largest and most comprehensive transportation planning document ever approved by the CCC. Dudek continues to support Caltrans and SANDAG on its implementation.

PWPs provide a single document that establishes a framework for comprehensive planning, reviewing, and permitting, allowing improvements to be analyzed as an integrated and coordinated system, which expedites the permitting process and saves money.

April Winecki and Alison Evans have combined 30 years’ experience specializing in project planning and regulatory compliance pursuant to CEQA, NEPA, and the California Coastal Act. Their NCC PWP/TREP project is a top three finalist for the California Transportation Foundation Awards Sustainable Transportation/ Environmental Enhancement Project of the Year.