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Zoning & Development Review
Coastal Zone Permits

What is the Coastal Zone?

The California Coastal Act of 1976 established a Coastal Zone along the State's Pacific Coast. In Santa Cruz County, this zone extends about five miles inland from the North Coast. From Natural Bridges to 41st Avenue in Capitola, it extends about 0.6 miles inland. From Capitola to the south County boundary, it extends to Highway One. For instructions to see if your parcel is in the Coastal Zone, click here.

When is a Coastal Zone Permit Required?

Within the Coastal Zone, any person who wishes to do any sort of land development must obtain a Level 5 development permit. "Development" includes:

  • Construction, reconstruction, size alteration, or demolition of a structure
  • Grading, removing, placement, and extraction of any earth material
  • Subdivision and minor land division
  • Change in the density or intensity of land use
  • Harvesting of major vegetation, except for agriculture and timber harvesting

Are There Any Exemptions or Exclusions?

Some smaller projects do not require Coastal Zone permits. These include:

  • Additions to the existing structures and construction of accessory structure such as garages, swimming pools, sheds, and fences, if they will be: Located outside the Appeal Jurisdiction and will contain less than 500 sq.ft. -or- Located within the Appeal Jurisdiction and will contain less than 250 sq.ft. or 10% of the total existing area in square feet
  • Landscaping
  • Replacement of wells, water tanks, and septic systems
  • Repair and maintenance of roads, parks, industrial plants, and public utilities
  • Replacement after a natural disaster; however, other code sections may require a development permit

Although a project may otherwise qualify for an exemption, a Coastal Development Permit may be required if:

  • The structure is located on a beach or wetland
  • The proposed improvement would be located within 50 feet of a coastal bluff

In addition, certain projects within the urban areas of the County are eligible for exclusion from the requirement for a Coastal Zone Permit if they will be:

  • Located in a "Residential Exclusion Zone" as shown on Official Coastal Zone maps - or -
  • Not located within the Appeal Jurisdiction, a scenic corridor or a Special Community; and
  • A principal permitted use in the applicable zone district.

These exclusion-eligible projects include:

  • Construction, reconstruction, alteration, or demolition of up to 4 dwelling units
  • Construction, etc, of any commercial structure containing less than 2,000 sq.ft.
  • Commercial change of use
  • Small agricultural development (See Section 13.20.073.)
  • Lot Line Adjustments
  • Grading less than 100 cubic yards

A Coastal exclusion can usually be issued along with a building permit. A small fee is charged. (For all exclusions, see Sections 13.20.070 through .080.)

What are Special Areas and Special Communities?

Seven areas along the coast have been set aside because of their unique scenic, historical, or beach-front character. They are:

  • Bonny Doon Special Scenic Area
  • Swanton Road Area
  • Davenport Special Community
  • Harbor Area Special Community
  • East Cliff Village Tourist Area
  • Seacliff Beach Area
  • Rio Del Mar Esplanade

Development in these areas is subject to special design standards that will preserve their unique qualities. (See Santa Cruz County Code, Sections 13.20.140 through .147.)

What is the Appeal Jurisdiction?

Official County approvals on certain types of projects, and on projects in certain locations, may be appealed to the California Coastal Commission. These projects include development which:

  • is located between the sea and the nearest through public road
  • is located within 300 feet of a beach, high-tide line or coastal bluff top
  • is located within 100 feet of any stream, estuary or wetland in the Coastal Zone
  • proposes a use that is not a principal permitted use in the zone district

(These are shown on Coastal Zone Maps as "Appeal Jurisdictions".)

Significant Tree Removal

Coastal policies encourage the preservation of mature trees. However, if you have to remove a tree larger than 5 feet around, or a clump of trees (five or more) that are each 3 feet around, you must first obtain a permit. Please contact us by email at or by self-scheduling an appointment with Zoning staff. Trees that become so hazardous that they are a threat to life or property may be removed immediately, but you must notify the Planning Department within 10 business days. (See Chapter 16.34 for specific regulations.)

How is a Coastal Zone Permit Application Processed?

If your project requires a Coastal Development Permit, you will need to apply for a Level 5 Review. (See  Zoning Administrator Development Permits.)

Residents of property within 100 feet of the project site, as well as owners of property within 300 feet, will be notified of the public hearing.

Required Findings For Approval

Every Coastal development project must meet the design criteria and use standards of the particular zone district and Local Coastal Land Use Plan. It must also meet the Coastal Zone Design Criteria. These standards call for a harmonious appearance, minimum grading and tree-cutting, suitable landscaping, and the avoidance of ridgetops. (See County Code Section 13.20.130).


The Zoning Administrator's decision may be appealed by anyone who feels their interests have been affected. See the Planning Appeals page for more information.

If the project is located within the Appeal Jurisdiction, an approval may also be appealed to the California Coastal Commission, based on one of the five specific grounds regarding access, public view protection, land use compatibility, natural land forms, and erosion. These appear in Section 13.20.122 of the Santa Cruz County Code. Denials may not be appealed to the Coastal Commission.

For Further Information

For complete regulations in the Coastal Zone, see County Code Chapter 13.20 and California State Public Resources Code, beginning with Section 30001. If you have questions about Coastal Permits, please contact us by email at or by self-scheduling an appointment with Zoning staff.