The new Lynch/Frick seawall is coated in a brown concrete to resemble the natural bluff it fortifies
  • The new Lynch/Frick seawall is coated in a brown concrete to resemble the natural bluff it fortifies
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An Encinitas bluff tour organized by Surfrider San Diego drew a host of media and disgruntled oceanfront homeowners to Grandview Beach on Monday afternoon (June 8).

Surfrider representatives had organized the tour to tout their support for a California Coastal Commission brief submitted to the state Supreme Court in anticipation of a fourth hearing regarding the construction of a retaining wall on the beach by two homeowners, Barbara Lynch and Tom Frick.

With so much California coastline fortified with manmade seawalls, the result of this case will be significant.

With so much California coastline fortified with manmade seawalls, the result of this case will be significant.

When an existing seawall was destroyed in a 2010 storm, the pair applied to the commission for a permit to rebuild the wall and a private staircase leading from their residences to the beach below, as most homes in the area are equipped with. The commission issued a wall permit valid for 20 years, reserving the right to revisit the wall's approval after two decades. They denied the staircase permit, noting local planning decisions that call for private beach access points to be phased out in favor of public access points.

The owners cried foul, claiming that they should have a right to rebuild the stairs despite local planning guidelines because the California Coastal Act contains provisions allowing for "replacement of structures destroyed by disasters." They further argued that the commission's reserving the right to review the wall's coastal impact in the future was improper, and that owners should have a permanent right to protect their structures from erosion under the Coastal Act.

Judge Earl H. Maas III of San Diego Superior Court agreed, striking down the commission's decision in March 2013. The commission appealed, winning a reversal of that decision in September 2014.

"The Coastal Act has important protections to allow for public access along the beach for recreational resources," said Surfrider legal director Angela Howe. "As surfers will tell you, once water starts to hit up against a wall, refraction occurs and it obliterates not only sandy beaches but the waves we all enjoy.

"We feel it's important the public understand the negative impacts of seawalls and the potential impact of decisions like this case. Coastal communities deserve that knowledge."

The matter now heads to the state supreme court, where commission representatives will argue once again that it's important to review existing seawalls from time to time, as new erosion-control technologies that cause less damage to the beach below become available. They've also asserted that some natural erosion is both expected and an important factor in keeping the beaches below bluffs supplied with sand.

Tom Cook

Tom Cook

"This is a people problem, not a natural one," said Tom Cook, chair of Surfrider's beach-preservation committee. "Erosion isn't a sand problem, it's a natural process. That's what these [seawalls] are trying to protect against."

A handful of bluff-top property owners, both local and from other areas of San Diego, expressed concern that any ruling that might lead to future challenges on their seawalls could lead to falling property values or even the conclusion that sea-level rise could mean that indefinite defense of their homes could be infeasible.

"Many years ago, as the bluffs eroded, the rocks that were once part of the bluff system became some of the most iconic features here in San Diego," said Cook, lending support to those fears. "Our tidepools, rock reefs offshore that provide surf breaks, they were born from bluff erosion. It's part of our history, and it's part of what defines the beach culture here in San Diego."

Residents disagreed, with one owner insisting that natural erosion contributes "a very minor amount" of sand to the beach, comparing the tan sandstone above to the black-and-white beach sand, much of it hauled in as part of beach-replenishment projects seawall owners partially finance through permitting fees to mitigate the negative impact of their walls on the beaches below.

A ruling on the matter isn't expected until later this year or sometime in early 2016.

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Comments

Twister June 9, 2015 @ 6:45 p.m.

"Coastal protection" by seawall is a losing proposition in many ways. When the City of San Diego decided to "protect" Sunset Cliffs from erosion in the seventies, I suggested that the properties be condemned and the homeowners compensated for the fair market value of their property. Now, thirty-odd years later, the relative cost to taxpayers and the benefits to the property owners could be re-evaluated to determine which alternative ended up being best. Either way, the taxpayers paid to preserve the property values of private parties who were unwise enough to buy property that was subject to erosion.

Is it the taxpayer's responsibility to prop up the shaky business deals of the wealthy?

I guess it is--we've already had countless taxpayer dollars expended, directly and indirectly, for private stadiums, and are presently about to be shafted again.

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Dave Rice June 9, 2015 @ 10:36 p.m.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the courts - many of those '70s seawalls in Sunset Cliffs are now eroding and again in need of replacement, despite the Army Corps of Engineers' placement of non-native boulders along the cliffs. An entire condo complex at the end of Bermuda is in jeopardy, and values in the building are being hit due to massive per-unit assessments to shore up the wall.

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Twister June 11, 2015 @ 5:10 p.m.

I suspect the City was trying to please everybody, so they got mediocrity. Such is engineering politics.

Another example of this phenomenon: A CalTrans engineer urged his "superiors" to encircle the vertical rebar in bridge columns with additional rebar to prevent bridge column failures in earthquakes. He was ignored by said "superiors," and the idea was rejected (budget considerations?). Shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake when many people were crushed by freeway bridge failures, the engineer was interviewed in the field by a TV reporter. Even though this was BIG news, he was never heard from again (to my knowledge). However, many such bridge structures had their columns reinforced after Loma Prieta. There was at least one case of faulty work during the extremely expensive retrofit work.

The devil is in the (missing) details, folks!

By the way, most of the beach sand replenishment is due to coastal zone erosion, not streamflow. Streams carry some sand, but it is commonly deposited in flat areas like lagoons; the lighter silt particles are much more commonly carried out to sea. Besides, dams gather most of the upper-watershed sand and silt.

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Ponzi June 23, 2015 @ 10:28 p.m.

No seawalls. No new seawalls. Let nature take its course. The greedy bluff landowners can go to hell.

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