On Thursday September 10, the California Coastal Commission took an important step to preserve California beaches. 

The Commission considered an application to fill a ‘gap’ in a continuous stretch of seawalls fronting homes on Pacific Avenue in Solana Beach. The homeowner behind the gap had legally forfeited the right to a seawall in front of their property, and was notably absent from the permit application in what was seen as a group attempt to subvert the property’s deed restriction. In a 7-5 vote, the Commission denied the seawall application.

Although faced with pressure to approve the permit, the Commission’s approval would have undermined decades of work to discourage reckless coastal development on the edge of Solana Beach’s public bluffs and beaches. The decision to avoid this negative precedent, and to analyze how the public process had been corrupted through the application, sends an important signal to property owners that the Commission will not allow loopholes for beach-destroying development to be endlessly abused.

The crux of the decision concerned a bait-and-switch, where property owners at 245 Pacific Avenue submitted an application to the City of Solana Beach for a seawall, and then were removed from the application when it advanced to the Coastal Commission for review. 

This move was seen as intentionally subversive, given the Coastal Commission has denied armoring at 245 Pacific Avenue five times since 1991, when property owners accepted a waiver of their future right to build a seawall in exchange for the ability to build a new home within just 20 feet of Solana Beach’s bluff edge. The intention of this waiver was to prevent exactly the scenario we are seeing today: a new home is built so close to the edge of an eroding coastal bluff  that it is sure to request a seawall in the future, thus perpetuating a reckless pattern of development and armoring long after we have ‘known better’ than to build that close to the beach.

This latest version of the permit application was submitted by neighbors, whose properties were built before the Coastal Act was passed and retain certain entitlements to armoring. Homeowners at these properties asserted that the ‘gap’ in armoring led to structural stability issues on their own properties. While this argument is not necessarily false, removing 245 Pacific Avenue from the application represents the exclusion of an indispensable party — no rational person would believe that 245 Pacific Avenue would not be the primary beneficiary of a seawall in front of its property. More broadly, the idea that a property owner can be used as the primary basis to justify a seawall on a neighboring property, especially a neighboring property explicitly restricted from having a seawall, sets a dangerous precedent that would undermine the purpose of deed restrictions and lead to new avenues for daisy-chain style armoring of California’s coast.

This is a good time to remind everyone that seawalls narrow our public beaches. Every new and legacy seawall reduces the width of California’s sandy beaches. When considering seawall applications, we largely rely on the Coastal Commission to consider the potential impacts to the public beach, as well as whether or not the public has knowingly accepted those costs in the permitting process.

During September’s meeting, commissioners saw through the attempt to sneak in a seawall for 245 Pacific Avenue. In addition to denying the seawall, many commissioners voiced distaste for the games that property owners have been playing for the last decade. Commissioner Wilson expressed astonishment that the private property owners applying for a seawall could potentially occupy public, beachfront property for next-to-nothing.

 “It’s shocking to me that citizens of that city would think that’s a reasonable and equitable exchange, and just speaks to structural inequalities and entitlements,” Commissioner Wilson said during the meeting. Commissioner Uranga also hit the nail on the head when he remarked, “This is a poster child for managed retreat.”

The northern stretch of Solana Beach is already a nearly contiguous seawall. With King Tides providing a window into a future of beaches narrowed by sea level rise, and crowds seeking respite from heat and urban places; Surfrider is celebrating September’s decision and expects the fight to protect coastal resources to intensify.

You can join us by attending our next beach preservation meeting on Monday September 28, where you can learn more about these issues, sign up to track these decisions in your local community, and learn how to be a voice for the coast during civic meetings.

Right: A King Tide at Fletcher Cove shows a future åwith sea level rise

Left: Beachgoers flock to Fletcher Cove during a recent heatwave

To read the full letter we submitted to the Commission regarding 245 Pacific Avenue, click HERE.