A battle over how long a private property seawall can remain along the California coast without being re-approved by the California Coastal Commission hit the Court of Appeal – sitting in San Diego – on Monday, July 14. The case could set a huge precedent for property owners up and down the state’s fragile coast.
It all started when heavy rains in 2010 resulted in a bluff collapse up in Encinitas. The collapse also destroyed a 100-foot seawall and damaged a staircase to the beach. The two affected families who have bluff-top homes, went to rebuild the sea wall with a permit but were stopped by the Coastal Commission which required that any new sea wall had to be re-evaluated in 20 years due to rising sea levels. That meant that the families – or their successors – would have to then re-apply for the permit in two decades once the new sea wall was completed.
The families rebuilt the sea wall, 100 feet long and 29 feet tall, but then filed suit against the Commission’s condition for the permit. The families got a local San Diego judge to agree with them, and the Coastal Commission appealed – hence the Fourth District Court of Appeal hearing.
The Commission – established in the early 1970’s by the voters of California to protect the coast – apparently is attempting to apply the best science to the situation. The best science is saying that climate change is occurring right now, and sea levels are expected to rise in the next 20 to 30 years.
It makes sense then that the agency assigned to protect our common public beaches and cliffs is trying to deal in its own way with environmental changes due to human activity. Requiring a re-evaluation of a sea wall in twenty years is not unreasonable.
When the two families, the Fricks and the Lynchs sued the Coastal Commission, a right-wing law firm jumped in to assist them. The Pacific Legal Foundation – known for its defense of businesses, of Christian crosses, perceived threats to private property, and other right-wing causes – is working for free, pro bono.
At issue is the 20 year requirement and the use of sea walls in general by coastal property owners to stem the tide of natural erosion. It’s said sea walls are needed to protect private property from the detrimental effects of wind and sea. But sea walls also contribute to sand loss at beaches as they prevent the movement of sand along the coastlines by disrupting the natural erosion of bluffs onto the beach and the tidal action that brings sand ashore.
In March of 2013, local Superior Court Judge Earl Maas agreed with the property owners who have adjoining lots on Neptune Avenue in Encinitas. Judge Mass called the Commission’s action “a power grab”
In its appeal, the Commission argued that the wall re-evaluation is needed after 2 decades to determine its physical condition and to check out the impact of the rise in sea level – both on the beach itself and on the cliffs and bluffs. The appeal is signed by Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. The appeal stated:
“This uncertainty (about a rising sea level) makes long-term projections about the impacts of structures extraordinarily difficult to make.”
Another back up argument on behalf of the citizens of California is that there is no law that allows a property owner to accept a Commission permit – which the Fricks and Lynches did – build their wall – and then sue over conditions of the permit.
The deputy chief counsel for the Commission, Chris Pederson, said on Monday that it’s tough to figure out what the longterm negative effects of a seawall are and will be. State law does say they can be authorized to protect existing structures. But they are tied to the life-span of the bluff structure they are protecting. Pederson stated:
“We want to ensure that the seawall remains only for as long as it is needed.”
Here is LA Times San Diego stringer Tony Perry’s article from July 13th.
Here is today’s article in the U-T San Diego