Even where public safety may be at risk, seawall applicants are in for a fight. Armoring the coast has become the equivalent of overprescribing antibiotics. "It's gonna get ugly," said Maricela Morales of the California Coastal Commission at a March 7 public hearing, as talk centered on how tough it can be to reject a waterfront homeowner's proposal. Several speakers compared turning down seawalls to saying no to toddlers. Hard, but necessary.
Before them, to approve or deny, were two controversial blufftop projects involving homes built before 1976, when the California Coastal Act changed sea front planning forever. Safety, a key consideration, collided with concerns about blocking natural erosion, and public beach access. The first case involved an old house in Encinitas, 27 feet from the bluff. Homeowners Andre and Jennifer Hurst want to demolish it and build a bigger one, but the 40-foot setback they proposed isn't safe for the life of a new home. The existing seawall may not last that long. Replace the seawall, too? Just what commissioners are trying to head off: immortal seawalls.
The second application, on behalf of Bob Trettin, sought permits to build a daunting structure on the public beach and bluff, fronting homes at 235, 241 and 245 Pacific Ave. in Solana Beach. The 150-foot long, 35-foot high seawall would be bolstered by a roughly 45-130 foot wide, 50-foot high geogrid structure on the bluff face. Seawalls alter natural shoreline processes, but the Coastal Act permits them where needed "to serve coastal-dependent uses or to protect existing structures or public beaches in danger from erosion." But did the homes qualify for such protection? In 2000, the Hurst home was granted an emergency permit for a seawall due to a prior landslide, followed by sloughage that altered the bluff. The 42-foot long concrete wall was built on the beach, along with a below grade, upper bluff retaining system. The Hursts see no need for any setback limit on a new home with the system in place. Twenty-one houses have been approved by the city or the commission on the Encinitas bluffs since certification of the Local Coastal Plan in 1994. The plan, which can be stricter than the Coastal Act, considers all types of slope failure over a time period of 75 years. Staff reports noted that the bluff is currently stable. However, with future sea rise, upper bluff erosion will likely continue "and an upper bluff wall may be requested in the future.”
That would go against the Coastal Act, said Kaily Wakefield, policy coordinator at Surfrider Foundation. "The existing seawall was put there to protect the previous home. It can't be used to consider new development. A seawall is not meant to exist in perpetuity." Wakefield argued that the seawalls prevent landward migration of the beach by natural erosion, a process that actually opens up more beach for everyone.
After long discussion, the commission denied the project. The Solana Beach application, covering 235, 241 and 245 Pacific Ave, was complicated by adjacent homes, and a hole in the armor. The homes at 235 and 241 were built prior to the Coastal Act. But 245 Pacific Ave. received a Coastal Commission permit for a new home in 1996. The owners were given two options. They could site the home 40 feet from the bluff edge, where it would likely be safe for 75 years, or they could put it at least 25 feet from the edge and waive all rights to shoreline protection devices within the 40-foot setback area. The owners chose the riskier 25-foot location. As Surfrider sees it, they should now accept the long-term consequences of that decision, having waived their right to bluff stabilization. A seawall is not allowed, and the threatened portion of the home should be removed per the deed restriction. If granted, Surfrider argued, the entire north side of Solana Beach will be armored, 33 properties, one long seawall, daisy-chained in. Death by 1.000 cuts. Nearly impossible to tear down. But denying the current proposal would leave a 150 foot gap in shoreline protection, commissioners said. Studies found the home at 245 could be in danger of slope failures, and that 241 and 249 Pacific Ave. are at risk from bluff failures originating on the slope at 245 Pacific. Citing the dangers, the commission approved the wall, to be built entirely on publicly owned beach and bluff. The armoring is approved only for as long as the existing bluff top homes at 235 and 241 Pacific Avenue still exist.
"These are wrenching for us," said commissioner Donne Brownsey of the two cases, calling the first one harder. "I think this property owner (Solana Beach) spoke when they agreed to the original" set of conditions. "We really have to come to grips" with the need for a strategy, she said. "We have internally conflicting policies with regard to seawalls. We have to assert a comprehensive policy on seawalls." "People say there are all these horrific ugly walls going up the bluffs. "The question for me is, if we armor all of our bluffs in our communities, is the public aware that they're choosing to give up their beaches in order to protect these homes?"