By Jonathan Horn UNION-TRIBUNE
Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 6 a.m.
SOLANA BEACH — In the decades to come, the sea walls that line the Solana Beach bluffs could all come down.
The city is working on a long-range plan that would remove the concrete barriers, which protect the homes that sit above the coast but also threaten the 1.4-miles of beach that give Solana Beach its biggest tourist draw.
Under the plan, all sea-wall permits would expire in 2081, a date agreed upon by blufftop homeowners and environmentalists. In the meantime, Solana Beach would have first dibs on blufftop homes with sea walls if they go up for sale. Should the city buy them, the sea walls could be removed as part of a process to restore the beach.
Property owners and environmentalists are on opposite sides of whether sea walls are even appropriate.
Sea walls are controversial because they teeter the line between private property rights and the public’s access to a sandy beach. The mostly concrete barriers are built into the coastal bluffs to block erosion, a gradual crumbling of the cliffs due to repeated pounding from high-tide waves.
By blocking erosion, sea walls keep the oceanview homes atop the cliffs safe from a shrinking base below. But that also means a narrower beach for the public since the walls cut off one source of sand — the breaking down of the bluffs.
Solana Beach is unique among North County cities because its entire coastline is made up of bluffs.
Sea wall homeowners must pay fees for sand replenishment and to make up for loss of beach. In fact, Solana Beach blufftop owners account for more than $1.25 million of the roughly $1.46 million of sea wall fees the San Diego Association of Governments holds.
SANDAG imported 2.1 million cubic yards of sand for 12 county beaches, including Solana Beach, in 2001. It plans to do a similar project early next year.
The 2081 sea-wall expiration date is part of the land-use portion of Solana Beach’s proposed Local Coastal Plan, which the city hopes a skeptical California Coastal Commission will approve by November. If that happens, the vast majority of projects would only need city approval, not the blessings of both the city and commission.
The idea of a 2081 removal of sea walls is specific to Solana Beach. City Manager David Ott said, however, that the plan could change drastically in the next two months given recent criticism from Coastal Commission staff members. An Oct. 27 letter to the city from the commission called 2081 sea wall removal “implausible as proposed and extremely unlikely to occur.” The city has submitted five drafts of its land-use plan proposals to the commission since 2001.
Commission staffers have suggested sea-wall permits be limited to 20 years, a current norm. Jon Corn, an attorney who represents the homeowners, wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to the city that the deal is at risk if a 20-year limit on sea walls is imposed.
Under current commission rules, a Solana Beach homeowner who wants a sea wall has to prove an imminent threat to their property exists. Under the compromise, they wouldn’t have to do that. Solana Beach would allow the walls through 2081. At the same time, environmentalists are all-but assured the sea walls will not be there forever.
Also under the proposed Local Coastal Plan, blufftop homeowners with sea walls installed after 2005 would have to pay a to-be-determined fee to compensate the city for their sea wall causing a narrower beach. That money, along with other sources, would go to paying for the properties if the city buys them. The latest proposal for the fee is $3,100 per linear foot of sea wall, so a 50-foot sea wall would incur a $155,000 fee, not including a $21,000 sand replenishment fee. Environmentalists say that amount is too low; homeowners say it’s too high.
“The most valuable property on the Pacific Ocean is going to a bunch of self-interested property owners,” said Jim Jaffee, a Solana Beach surfer and adviser to the Surfrider Foundation. “The city has essentially given the deed of the bluff away from the beach-using public.”
Corn said a sea wall can cost between $500,000 and $700,000, including fees. David Winkler had one installed to protect his Solana Beach home last year.
“Everybody’s responsible for a lack of sand on the beach, and yet the oceanfront homeowners are the ones that get stuck bearing the burden of this,” he said, adding that he believes most of the sand that feeds the beaches is blocked by other coastal developments, such as Highway 101 and the train tracks.
Coastal Commission approval of Solana Beach’s plan is far from a sure thing. Deborah Lee, the district manager, called streamlining sea-wall approvals through 2081 a “significant policy change.” She also said the commission is uncertain that Solana Beach has an adequate business plan to buy the properties.
The city’s proposed plan to finance buying the properties could involve government grants, redevelopment money, rental income from the blufftop properties after the city buys them, parking revenues, or a portion of the city’s Transient Occupancy Tax.
Comment from Jim Jaffee:
This is a very good primer on the proposal in Solana Beach to remove seawalls. The one fact that is underscored is that the city and/or the state own the beaches and bluffs where seawalls are built. They do not have to let seawalls on their property. The failure was letting them be built on the public property in the first place. It did not have to happen.