Coastal Access

The Coastal Commission has released a beach access map for Capistrano Beach. This guide shows beach goers what part of the beach has guaranteed public access, so anyone is allowed to enjoy this section of the beach. Get this map! For reference, the numbers along the beach correspond to the addresses of the homes across from the water. You can travel from one section to other by walking where your feet get wet, and who doesn’t enjoy a nice stroll in the tide?

Regarded as one of the most beautiful coastlines in America, the majestic 1,100-mile California coast is as diverse as those who call California home.  From the rocky shores of northern California to the sun-drenched sandy beaches of southern California, The Golden State is blessed with an expansive coastline accessible to residents and tourists alike.


Perhaps it is because of its beauty that California has adopted strict public access protections which permit the public to visit nearly every coastal area.   Article X Section 4 of the California Constitution protects against any “individual, partnership, or corporation claiming or possessing the frontage or tidal lands of a harbor, bay, inlet, estuary, or other navigable water…[from being] permitted to exclude the right of way to such water whenever it is required for any public purpose.”  In furtherance of this goal, the Legislature required public access to be “conspicuously posted, and recreational activities be provided for all the people consistent with public safety.”  Section 30210 of the Coastal Act.

Enforcement of the California Coastal Act of 1976 (“Coastal Act”) falls to the California Coastal Commission, the State Coastal Conservancy, the State Lands Commission, and the Department of Parks and Recreation. The California Coastal Commission (“Coastal Commission”) implements the Coastal Act through its planning programs and regulatory powers.  The Coastal Act requires local governments to develop Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) that include land use policies and implementing zoning ordinances consistent with the policies of the Coastal Act.  Once developed, the Coastal Commission is charged with reviewing the LCPs to ensure their compliance with the Coastal Act’s access requirements. If approved, the local governments are delegated most permitting authority under the Coastal Act.  The Coastal Commission retains jurisdiction over all tidal, submerged, and public trust lands, as well as an appeal authority for local decisions.  As of 1998, 87 percent of California’s total coastal land area is under local control.

Therefore, if coastal access problems arise you should first contact the city in which the access point is located to report any issues.  If the city does not have an approved LCP or if you are unhappy with their response, then contact the California Coastal Commission’s Public Access Program Manager to report your concern.

The State of California and Coastkeeper believe a major part of protecting and preserving our coast is making sure people can enjoy it!  That’s why it’s a priority of Coastkeeper’s to ensure that the public understands their right to public access and actually utilize access to local coastal areas.

How Did We Get These Rights?

California Coastal Commission’s Regulatory Framework

A chief regulatory tool the Coastal Commission has used to balance the burdens imposed from private development upon public access to and along the shoreline is the requirement for permit applicants to record a legal document that protects or provides for public access across their property.  Generally, the Coastal Commission has used either an Offer to Dedicate (“OTD”) a public access easement or a Deed Restriction (“DR”) to protect future public accessways to the coast.

An OTD is a legal document that offers an easement across private land for a future public accessway.  In order to effectuate the OTD and open the accessway or stairway for public use, it must be accepted for management by a responsible agency and then improved and opened.  A DR is a legal document that places responsibilities upon the landowner relative to public use within a specifically defined area of the property, in order to allow for a public accessway.

Prescriptive Rights


Throughout the coastal zone, the public has historically crossed private property to reach streams, rocky outcroppings, the beach, or the ocean.  Prescriptive rights refer to public rights that are acquired over private lands. These rights arise as the public uses the land for recreational purposes, such as a trail to the coast or picnicking along a bluff-top or beach area. If the use meets certain legal criteria, then these historically used areas must be kept open for public use in perpetuity.

Section 30211 of the Coastal Act requires the Coastal Commission to protect public access when acquired through use.  In 1989, the Attorney General’s office prepared a manual for Coastal Commission staff to use in determining the level of public use necessary to establish a prescriptive right.  According to the Attorney General, in order to establish a prescriptive right in California the public must have used the land for a prescriptive period of five years before an easement comes into being and (1) if the land is a beach or coastal bluff it must be shown that the land was used as if it were a public recreational area; (2) the use should be substantial rather than minimal; (3) the use must be by the public at large as opposed to a number of persons who belong to some limited identifiable group; and (4) the use must be continual though not continuous.  Once each of these requirements have been satisfied, Coastal Commission staff may conclude a prescriptive right exists which would restrict the right of the property owner from modifying his/her property in a way which would harm that right of access.

Open to the Public: Coastal Access Sites Managed by Coastkeeper

Coastkeeper partnered with the California Coastal Conservancy and Coastal Commission to renovate and manage two coastal access sites for public enjoyment. The Huntington Harbor Bay Club and the Portofino Boardwalk are two public access areas currently open to the public which would have been lost to the people of California without our action. Please visit these beautiful places today and enjoy the view!

Portofino Boardwalk


In 2007, the California Coastal Conservancy contracted Coastkeeper to manage the Portofino Public Access Boardwalk in Huntington Harbor. Public access to the boardwalk had been closed for years due to management issues. As part of the contract, Coastkeeper has upgraded the boardwalk with new public access signs, park benches, trash cans and an automatic lock system to keep the area open to the public during the day.

Come take a stroll along the renovated Portofino Boardwalk and enjoy the view. Public parking is available at Seabridge Park, located on Countess Avenue near the end of Edinger Avenue.

Huntington Harbour Bay Club

Huntington Harbour Bay Club Pocket Beach

In 2009, the California Coastal Conservancy contacted Coastkeeper about a public access easement at the Huntington Harbour Bay Club. Without anyone to manage the area, it would have been lost to private development in December of 2009. Coastkeeper officially took over this public access easement in November of 2009, and will work to renovate the site and improve local water quality.

Prior to the expansion of the marina, decades ago, the beach at the Huntington Harbour Bay Club was commonly and historically used as a “baby beach” and included activities such as sun bathing and sabot (small sailboat) launching. Over the following decades, the beach area degraded due to marina related activities and at this point its most attractive feature is that it provides for a launching point into the marina. This small pocket beach is located with the protected Huntington Harbour waterways and provides a safe alternative for novice recreational water users from the open waters nearby at Huntington State Beach.  Therefore, we are opening this area for hand launching of sabots, kayaks, standup paddle boards, windsurfers, etc., free of charge.  Beach users will park in one of the 10 designated parking spots free of charge every day of the week, including holidays. Beach parking is valuable in this area and free public parking is a rarity in coastal Orange County.

Coastkeeper continues to protect public access to our beaches. A few years after acquiring the Huntington Harbour Bay Club easement, with some speed bumps along the way, this beach is finally open for public use.

Additional Information