California State Lands Commission

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The State Lands Commission (SLC) has jurisdiction over all “sovereign lands,” or lands held in trust by the State of California, including State Reserved Lands and Public School Lands, as well as tidelands, submerged lands three miles off the coast, and water bottoms of various navigable waters and their tributaries.[1] The SLC has jurisdiction to dispose of or lease those lands, but must do so in accordance with California’s Common Law Public Trust Doctrine.[2]

State Lands Commission Background

The State Lands Act of 1938 created the State Lands Commission, and vested in it powers and jurisdiction of the (1) Division of State Lands and of the (2) Department of Finance as a successor to the Surveyor General and State Land Office.[3] Those powers include “the full authority, as provided by law, to administer, sell, lease or dispose of the public lands owned by [California] or under its control, including not only school lands but tidelands, submerged lands, swamp and overflowed lands, and beds of navigable rivers and lakes.”[4] The extent of the submerged lands covered is three miles offshore, per the Submerged Lands Act.[5] “The commission was further authorized to provide for the extraction of minerals and oil and gas from any or all of such lands.”[6]

“The commission has exclusive jurisdiction over all ungranted tidelands and submerged lands owned by the State . . . which have been or may be acquired by the State (a) by Quitclaim, cession, grant, contract, or otherwise from the United States or any agency thereof, or (b) by any other means. All jurisdiction and authority remaining in the State as to tidelands and submerged lands as to which grants have been or may be made is vested in the commission.”[7] The supposed “exclusive jurisdiction” retained by the SLC operates more in the nature of concurrent jurisdiction in most situations, since enactment of the California Coastal Act (empowering the California Coastal Commission) and other state and federal legislation. Developing oil and gas leases, for example, requires approvals from at least ten different federal and state agencies.[8] Only in the case of specific statutory exceptions, such as boundary determinations, does the SLC retain truly exclusive jurisdiction.[9]

State Lands Commission Activities

The SLC addresses multiple mission goals across four different divisions. The SLC divisions are Environmental Planning and Management, Land Management, Marine Facilities, and Mineral Resources Management. The SLC’s goals encompass:

Energy Resources: “Exclusive jurisdiction” over all oil and gas development on State-owned property.[10] A permit from the SLC is required for any oil and gas development on lands within its jurisdiction.[11]

Environmental Management: Preparation of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) for land use changes within its jurisdiction, comments on EIRs for projects that affect the State's lands, and review of permit applications submitted to the California Coastal Commission, the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[12]

Granted Lands: The major ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, Benicia and Eureka are all located on "granted lands." Many marinas, aquatic parks, fishing piers, environmentally sensitive habitats, etc., are also located on granted lands. Granted lands are monitored by the Commission to ensure compliance with the terms of the statutory grant.[13]

Hazards Management (effort to remove man-made structures which may be hazards to public health and safety) and Oil Spill Prevention.

Land Boundaries: Research and surveys for particular parcels of land to establish a "boundary line agreement" or a negotiated "title settlement" in which the State's interest in the parcel is exchanged for other land or monies for future land acquisitions.[14]

Land Leasing: Public and private entities may apply to the Commission for leases or permits on State lands for many purposes including marinas, industrial wharves, tanker anchorages, harvesting of timber, dredging, grazing, mining, oil and gas, and geothermal development.[15]

Leasing of School Lands: Unsold school lands may be leased to private parties to generate revenue for the State's retired teachers. Forested school lands are being managed to produce self-sustaining yields of timber, while other school lands suitable for grazing or farming may be leased to ranchers and farmers.[16]

State Lands Commission Powers Under the Coastal Act

The California Coastal Act briefly describes the impacts to the powers of the SLC in section 30416 of the California Public Resources Code. Section (a) gives the SLC the power to review and comment on any proposed Local Coastal Program (LCP) or Port Master Plan (PMP) that might affect state lands. Section (c) dictates that boundary settlements and exchanges of lands between the SLC and other parties shall not be considered a ‘development,’ meaning they would not require a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) from the Coastal Commission. In special circumstances, such as a fence defined as a boundary requirement in Burke v. California Coastal Comm'n,[17] an object may thus be exempted from needing a CDP, where it otherwise would require one, because it would not be considered a ‘development.’ Section (d) adds CDP and PMP requirements in addition to any terms and conditions of any legislative grants of land to local governments. Thus, even for granted lands where the SLC may have included terms and conditions controlling development, the Coastal Act forces the inclusion of CDP and PMP requirements as well.


  1. This overlaps with the Coastal Zone jurisdiction granted to the California Coastal Commission.
  3. Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 6216(a) (2010).
  4. Cal. Pub. Res. Code §§ 6216(a), 6301.
  5. 43 U.S.C. § 1311(a) (2008); James v. State, 950 P.2d 1130, 1134 (Alaska 1997). “Coastal undersea lands were held in United States v. California, 332 U.S. 19, 67 S.Ct. 1658, 91 L.Ed. 1889 (1947), to belong to the United States. In 1953 Congress passed the Submerged Lands Act, which nullified the effect of that decision and ‘recognized, confirmed, established, and vested in, and assigned to the respective States’ title to submerged lands. 43 U.S.C. § 1311(a) (1994). Under the Submerged Lands Act a state receives title to submerged lands unless the United States has ‘expressly retained’ them. 43 U.S.C. § 1313(a) (1994).” Id.
  6. § 6216(a).
  7. § 6301 (emphasis added).
  8. California Coastal Commission, CALIFORNIA OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS LEASING AND DEVELOPMENT STATUS REPORT at ES 8-9, [1]. Although, the granting of new offshore oil and gas leases has not been permitted since the passing of the California Coastal Sanctuary Act of 1994. CAL. PUB. RES. CODE 6240 et seq.
  9. See Marks v. Whitney, 491 P.2d 374, 378, (Cal. 1971) (“Section 6357 authorizes the State Lands Commission to establish ordinary low-water mark or ordinary high-water mark by agreement, arbitration or action to quiet title whenever it is deemed expedient or necessary.”); Burke v. California Coastal Comm'n, 85 Cal. Rptr. 3d 909, 910 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2008).
  17. 85 Cal. Rptr. 3d 909, 910 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2008).