Deck Expansion at Inn at Sunset Cliffs Nixed by OB Planning Board

by on July 13, 2021 · 16 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

The Inn At Sunset Cliffs dominated the discussion during the Ocean Beach Planning Board’s regular monthly meeting, Wednesday, July 7.  A cycling issue was listed on the consent agenda but it was pulled by the board’s vice chair, Kevin Hastings.  It was placed at the end of the agenda but the meeting went on for three hours and the board did not get to it. It will be discussed at the next meeting.

Ocean Front Project Approved Without Discussion

There was a second consent agenda item that was passed:

“#1 1615 Ocean Front st. PTS# 673099 & 612237

Application for a Coastal Development Permit and Site Development Permit for the remodel and addition of 4,876 square feet to an existing single family dwelling unit located at 1615 Ocean Front Street. The 0.17 acre site is located in the RM-2-4 Base Zone.PRC voted to recommend to approve project contingent on clearing significant cycle items 3-0-0.”

On first reading, it appeared as if a nearly 5,000/SF new home was being passed with no public discussion.  However, a review of the Project Review subcommittee documents showed this agenda description was a little misleading.  The project consists of a 2,767/SF house, a 952/SF basement with underground parking, 871/SF of roof porch, and 475/SF existing garage.

The OB Project review subcommittee qualified its approval “contingent on clearing significant cycle items.”  Cycle items are review comments from the city that must be addressed before approval.  There are 22 outstanding cycle review comments. “Significant” is the proper way to describe such a list of items but the board approved the project anyway.

It would certainly not have been improper to postpone a vote on this project until the majority of the outstanding review issues were cleared. Because there was no discussion, the only commentary on the project are the meeting minutes on the Project Review subcommittee site.

The Inn At Sunset Cliffs

This project generated a lengthy discussion centered mainly around the proposed seawall and the decks seaward of The Inn At Sunset Cliffs, the small hotel on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. at the Point Loma intersection.  The Inn has been at this location since 1953.  There were two presentations, one by The Inn and another by community members who oppose what The Inn wants to do.

The main point of contention was the decking and the location of the seawall in the current proposal.  A little history first. There have been two decks at this location for many years, an upper and a lower.  The lower deck has been badly damaged and restored a number of times.  Anyone seeing the location of the lower deck could see it was in a precarious spot. To make matters worse, it was never permitted.

The unpermitted deck has a long history that comes to an end in the proposed project.  The Inn has decided to completely remove the lower deck as a generous concession hoping this show of good faith would help its cause.  There were two problems with this offer.

The Inn explained that the lower deck was destroyed and rebuilt in 2015 and destroyed again in 2019. Later, in a presentation by the opposition, it was shown the lower deck was also destroyed in 1991. Considering climate change and two destructions in the last six years, rebuilding the lower deck would be an expensive folly and probably uninsurable. Not much of a concession.

The second problem with The Inn’s offer is that they are offering to relinquish a deck that was illegally placed and never permitted.

The Inn’s proposal is to relocate the existing seawall “20 feet landward of where it exists today.” Initially, that sounds very attractive. On closer examination, it is not so appealing. The design shows the wall considerably seaward of the natural bluff top, backfilled with material, and topped with concrete.  The concrete is the upper deck. As was correctly pointed out, this design allows The Inn to occupy and use public land.

The engineering design was explained by Walt Crampton who opened his comments by explaining how long he had been doing this kind of work and how much work he had done locally. Mr. Crampton then went on to present the argument for the concrete on the top of this project – the deck, keep in mind – and his argument shot a huge hole through his credibility.

Crampton said, “It is important to maintain this upper slope, this upper concreted surface so that water cannot saturate the backfill.” He said, “it needed an impervious surface to protect the wall from hydrostatic pressure and overloading the wall.”

On the basis of a lifetime career in the construction industry, this reporter found the explanation ridiculous.  What they are proposing is large seawall, supposedly to protect The Inn, that also serves as a retaining wall that supports a large deck for The Inn. What the opposition pointed out is that the project is not designed to protect The Inn buildings, it is designed to protect the upper deck.

Hydrostatic pressure is basically pressure exerted by too much water in a confined space.  Water can be a very powerful force. It is precisely because of this issue that there are myriad designs for drainage systems behind retaining walls from very simple to very complex.  Any retaining wall of any significance contains a drainage element to prevent the problem.

A concrete slab on the surface would help but it is not necessary and would never be sufficient by itself, which was what Crampton was telling everyone. This was an argument for keeping the large concrete deck, disguised as an engineering necessity. The opposition pointed out that Crampton has never presented an alternative design during 10 years involvement with this project.

One issue that took up a number of The Inn’s presentation slides was that of public access.  The board’s Project Review subcommittee voted to approve the project “pending full consideration of ability to provide public access to south stair.” The subcommittee met on June 16. In the ensuing weeks, The Inn crafted a detailed explanation of why that would not happen.

Attorney Lee Andelin gave the Inn’s detailed explanation as to why the project did not have to provide public access to the beach below and why it was a bad idea.  It appeared that “full consideration” consisted of finding all the reasons why not to provide the access.

Andelin’s first slide was titled “A Permit Condition Requiring a Public Access Easement Would Be Unconstitutional.”  That’s heavy, bringing in the Constitution of the United States. Impressive. Adding to that was some language from the OB community plan that stated new public access had to be provided if a project had an impact on existing access, which this project did not have.

“Adequate Public Access Already Exists.” Andelin pointed out the end of Point Loma Ave. and Bermuda Ave. as two access points that satisfy the 500-foot requirement for new development in the community plan.  Bermuda is 385 feet away and still waiting reconstruction.  Pt. Loma Ave. is 15 feet away but there is no current access to the beach below from there.

“Public Access to the South Stairs Would be Burdensome and Impracticable.”  Several pictures of narrow sidewalk lanes alongside the buildings were included to illustrate how impracticable it would be. There were just three pictures, there was no overall assessment of the site, such as an aerial view of the property, showing these were the only choices.

Andelin went on to explain more about the laws governing seawalls.  He said it was consistent with the OB community plan. Four things were cited from the community plan:

  • “Preserve existing hotel/motel/hostel facilities from removal or conversion to residential units.”(§   2.4.1 .)
  • “Preserve, protect and, where feasible, provide and enhance lower-cost visitor serving recreational facilities and overnight accommodations.” (§ 6.0.)
  • Seawalls allowed “if necessary to protect existing development.” (§ 7.1.2; see also§ 7.3.4.)
  • “Identify, designate, preserve, and restore historical buildings in Ocean Beach and encourage their adaptive reuse.” (§ 9.2.5; see also§ 9.4.3.)

The only bullet that had anything to do with the project was number three about seawalls. Attorneys are trained to include all and every possible argument when advocating for a client and this illustrated that. The part about the Constitution was the dramatic element.

Livia Beaudin, an attorney from the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, kicked off the opposition presentation.  They have been opposing this work at The Inn for over a decade. One thing she mentioned at the outset was the lower deck failures, including the one in 1991 that The Inn neglected to mention.

Beaudin pointed out that “The principal structure is not the asset that’s intended to be protected. The project is designed to protect the deck. Because the wall is proposed to be so far seaward and backfilled it creates a usable concrete deck well beyond the natural bluff face.”

“It is an effort to continue to use private resources for private gain,” according to Beaudin.

Beaudin pointed out Crampton’s failure to consider any alternate designs.  Considering Crampton’s badly biased explanation for the concrete area above the wall, this is no surprise.  Crampton is an advocate for The Inn and designed what they wanted. His opinions cannot be considered even remotely objective.

Beaudin explained other reasons why this was a bad project based on a variety of authorities including the Municipal Code, the Coastal Bluffs and Beaches Guidelines, and the OB Community Plan.

During the discussion that followed, vice chair Hastings pointed out the project violated a requirement for a view cone. Section 4.6 “Public Coastal Views,” describes a view cone as:

“A “View Cone” is typically located at a street end, provides extensive views, and is defined by a 90 angle radiating lines from public vantage point (the centerline of the street) to the corners of the buildable envelope as defined by the setbacks of each corner property closest to the ocean or shoreline.”

Hastings showed that the view cone to the south and southwest was obstructed by structures that are there now and pointed out that the design calls for even more obstruction. Any new development would need to remedy this problem.

A motion to deny the project was based on The Inn’s plan to extend the bluff edge and the obstruction of the view cone. Another motion to approve the project and let the Coastal Commission take it from here was made.  That motion failed. The motion to deny the project passed.  This was clearly the correct thing to do.

4645 Santa Monica Ave.

This project proposed to divide a small lot subdivision into two lots.  One lot would have construction of a new house with an attached companion unit.  An existing guest quarters would then be converted into a companion unit on the other lot. As was pointed out in the discussion, this change would allow the owner to place a fourth unit at this location.

Surprisingly, and admirably, the board voted to deny the project based on this change allowing another unit to be crammed into this small project.  The motion was simply to deny the project and it passed. The vote was not based exactly on a code issue, it was more of a message to the city.  Board votes are only recommendations anyway, so such a vote is completely appropriate.

The cycling item on the consent agenda was: “#2 Replacing Car Parking with Bicycle Parking

“The Transportation Committee voted 6-0-0 to support the 2020 land development code update specifically for Municipal Code Section 142.0530 in Chapter 14, Article 2, Division 5 – Parking regulations, Table 142-05 F, the [sic] Ocean Beach Planning Board Transportation Committee supports the update to replace minimum parking requirements with bicycle parking at a ratio of two bicycle parking spaces for every 1 vehicle parking spot.”

No other information was provided.  A reading of the Transportation Subcommittee meeting minutes did not add any information either.  There was nothing to describe exactly what a bicycle parking space is. No members of the public were in attendance at the subcommittee meeting. The minutes did show the subcommittee voted 6-0-0 in favor of the change.

Of those six people, two are Peninsula Community Planning Board members and a third is a Midway-Pacific Highway Community Planning Group board member. The result was that only three OB board members voted to approve this. Because there was not a board majority voting on this issue, the Transportation subcommittee vote could be considered invalid.

Considering the effect that supporting this change will have on the public, a broader discussion is definitely in order.  Anyone interested in this change, pro or con, should contact the OB board.

Other news

  •  There was a lengthy discussion of the board’s Capital Improvement Project wish list. Each year the city asks the planning boards for their recommendations, which the boards dutifully provide.  Sadly, very few of these recommendations are ever accomplished.  The board listed the recommendations by priority.  It was clear that the OB board took this responsibility to heart.
  • Helene Idels from the OB Library explained that they hope to open again in the fall, staffing seems to be the issue right now.
  • Board member Craig Klein brought up what is happening with Pizzeria Luigi’s that recently occupied the building on the corner of Bacon and Newport where Bravo’s Mexican Restaurant was.  The small parking lot at the rear of the building has been closed and is being converted to an outdoor patio. Klein objected to removing the parking and wanted the project looked into.  There were no permits for the concrete or block wall work that can be seen on the city’s on-line permit site.


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page July 13, 2021 at 3:01 pm

A board member provided some language explaining more why they voted against the lot split at 4645 Santa Monica:

OB community Plan 4.2.2 and 4.2.8

This is effectively a lot split of a 7,000 sf parcel (6,000 min lot size). The resulting substandard lots result in unusable rear yard (front lot), lack of street frontage or street pedestrian access to the rear homes, and the SDU+ADU on a rear lot less than 3,000 sf which exceeds the maximum density for the base zone.


Lyle July 13, 2021 at 3:58 pm

Re: “It is an effort to continue to use private resources for private gain,” Should this be “public resources for private gain” ?


Geoff Page July 13, 2021 at 4:56 pm

Thanks, Lyle, you are correct, it should have read as you wrote it. Ms. Beaudin said it correctly, I made a mistake when I transcribed it from the video. Good catch.


retired botanist July 13, 2021 at 4:00 pm

Ok- haven’t even gotten to the second 1/2 of Geoff’s excellent distillation of the projects yet, but as far as The Inn at Sunset Cliffs issue, its a Wait, Whaaat? I’m sure I’ve commented on this before! Its a NO. It was a NO then, and it still is. Which part of illegal in the first place isn’t soaking in? And which part of usurping public land, and then justifying lack of public access, isn’t resonating with everyone, from neighbors to whomever might be involved in rubber stamping this? Seriously, this is just plain audacious! I should stop here! :(


Geoff Page July 13, 2021 at 4:59 pm

I did not realize how long this has been a contentious issue, at least 10 years, this is no one I’ve been following. I do not understand why they were not required to remove that lower deck long ago. Equally puzzling is that the city issued emergency repair permits for an unpermitted deck, on multiple occasions.


retired botanist July 14, 2021 at 11:32 am

Yes, they did, Geoff…its an appalling story that goes way back. The ’emergency repair” scam is an old chestnut in the regulatory arena, a loophole that allows construction that would otherwise never be permitted, or would take a couple years to acquire. We’ve also seen it used in tree removal, declaring ‘danger to life and limb” to remove healthy trees that have ‘protections”… “just in case”… :(


Geoff Page July 14, 2021 at 2:32 pm

Yes, sadly, retired, I’m familiar with the “emergency repair” loophole. Sounds like it was badly abused in this case. I’m just now getting up to speed on this one, what a mess. And when will applicants, presenters, developers, the Navy quit pandering at the opening in all of their performances. The Inn spent too many minutes telling us what a valued treasure it is and all it does for the community. The Navy spent a huge par of its NAVWAR presentation patting itself on the back for all it does for us lucky San Diegans. Turns me off and now hearing there is a sordid history with The Inn, I’d like those minutes back.


Paul Webb July 13, 2021 at 5:07 pm

A couple of thoughts on the Inn issue. First, I hate to admit it but the attorney may be right in his assessment of a public access requirement as “unconstitutional.” Back in the 80’s, the coastal commission required a public access easement in its approval of the construction of a single family home in the Ventura area. If I remember correctly, the property owners agreed to the condition, constructed the home, and then went to court to fight the deed restriction requirement.

Ultimately the courts ruled that the requirement for the public access was unconstitutional as there was no “nexus” between the provision of public access and the construction of a single family home. That is, there was not public access at this site, and the construction of the home did not restrict access in any way, therefore no requirement to provide any access. Disclosure: I am not an attorney and my memory is a little fuzzy as it was a long time ago. There have been some access dedications that the courts have upheld, notably one required of David Geffen in Malibu, but the attorney may have a point. The only way to really tell is to litigate on the basis of the facts of each situation.

Second, with regard to Walt Crampton, I have worked with Walt many times over the years. Sometimes I agree with him, often I don’t. As a consultant and representative of the property owners, it is his responsibility to advocate for their proposal, not present an unbiased opinion. He was doing his job. It is an unfortunate truth that the planning groups do not generally have access to expertise that project proponents have. The city is no help whatsoever, providing planning groups with only the barest of minimum of professional support, typically a planner from development services, many of whom do not regularly attend meetings.

I have always found Walt to be a straight shooter, and a formidable but honest adversary. I cannot say that about some other engineering geologists I have worked with over the course of my career. In fact, there are a couple (who I will not name) who raise my blood pressure any time I think about them even given the decades that have passed.


Geoff Page July 13, 2021 at 5:24 pm

Paul, I also agreed that there was clearly no legal way to require an access easement. I looked at it more like a community request, something The Inn really could get some good press for agreeing to provide. Instead, they made it crystal clear – no way. I thought it was overkill and it was not presented in a good manner. They could have eased into it by saying how they looked at the possibilities and they really wished it could happen but the site just could not accommodate it. Maybe a nice aerial view showing how constrained the site is. The legal stuff was entirely unnecessary.

As for Mr. Crampton, Paul, I respect your opinion of him based on past experiences. But when I see an engineer trying to slip one by the public by presenting what was essentially a dishonesty intended to drive home the falsity that concrete on top was necessary to protect the fill behind the wall, I’m through listening.

This is one of the reasons why have stayed involved with planning groups. I have construction expertise that comes in handy with things like this. In fact, I got on the PCPB because I challenged the city on how it was going to replace a local canyon sewer line by denuding the small canyon. I spoke up about trenchless methods for this work and that was what the city did after being challenged. We saved the canyon.


kh July 13, 2021 at 9:55 pm

The geologist has a duty to the approval authorities to demonstrate this is the least intensive option for protecting the primary structure. Obviously, that could conflict with what’s in their client’s best interests.

Minor point… most of the existing lower deck is actually on private property. The area past the natural bluff edge however is considered public easement. Note that doesn’t necessarily equate to public access. In fact the city often requires the applicant to block public access to sensitive slopes for safety and preservation of the slope. The exception would be if a public access stair was provided..

In fact the Inn previously proposed it as public access, in an effort to retain their lower deck which would continue to block access to part of the beach. With removal of the lower wall, it would be accessible from the north instead. And I seriously doubt they will get approval for a private stair on the public easement of a sensitive slope. That is expressly prohibited in all documents I’ve seen.

In denying the project the board asked the applicant to provide alternatives to extending the bluf edge. It’s clear that the outdoor space is a critical part of their income, so hopefully there is a way to accomplish that while also complying with coastal requirements. To date every wedding down there has been on an illegal deck.


Paul Webb July 14, 2021 at 5:35 pm

To me the most egregious thing about the presentation is the justification for not providing access at this site because of alternate access available at the Point Loma Ave. and Bermuda street ends. Neither has been open for years and, as Geoff points out, construction has not started on one and there are no plans for fixing the other.

I still have very bitter feelings about the Sunset Cliffs Shoreline Stabilization project. I was working at the CCC at the time, and the City sold the CCC and the public a bill of goods about all the benefits of the project – increased public access, “hanging beaches” (don’t ask me, they never really showed a design and I have no idea as to how they intended to build/keep them), protection of public sandy beaches (now pretty much all gone with a few remnants). It was really all about protecting public property.


kh July 15, 2021 at 9:24 am

here’s a link to a previous article about a collapse which includes links to various other events including the previous planning board review. The OBrag has been a great resource on this.


Frank Gormlie July 15, 2021 at 9:51 am

JH – do you have better images of the slides from the Inn’s presentation?


kh July 15, 2021 at 11:53 am

Under the agenda link for the July 7 meeting. I sent this to the author as well.

and see this.


Paul Webb July 15, 2021 at 10:13 am

In my previous comment, I meant to say “protect private property” not public property.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the City is really letting its citizens down. This is a complicated issue with a lot of technical information that is not easily digested by non-expert citizens, which is largely presented by highly paid technical experts in a one-sided manner. The planning boards do not have any expert input from the City’s engineers and engineering geologists (that is, if they still have any engineering geologists – the last two I was familiar with have long since left the city, and it is very difficult to track down anyone by position on the City’s web site). The City provides only the barest minimum of support to the planning groups, usually, in my experience, an appearance a few times a year by the planner assigned to the group. Even when assistance was specifically requested, there was no guarantee that anyone would show up.

When the project applicants have highly paid experts presenting their side and the planning groups have nothing, it is simply not a fair process.


Geoff Page July 15, 2021 at 11:59 am

This is why retirees with expertise should get involved with their planning boards. Paul has an extensive planning background. Architects engineers and construction people can help their communities by using that expertise precisely for situations like this. Even people still working that have particular expertise are useful for whatever time they can devote.


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