City’s program to protect its beachfront ““ which includes fees on homeowners for building sea walls ““ awaits review by state Coastal Commission

By Tanya Mannes

11:25 a.m. October 5, 2008

CHARLIE NEUMAN / Union-Tribune
A construction crew worked on a sea wall below a home on Pacific Avenue in Solana Beach. The cost of the 50-foot-long wall, which could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, is being paid by the homeowner to protect the house from future slides.
SOLANA BEACH ““ Not long after Torgen Johnson moved into his ocean-view house on top of a coastal bluff at Pacific Avenue, a sudden landslide triggered by a rainstorm claimed a chunk of his property.

“A large portion of my backyard slid down the beach,” Johnson said.

Johnson is now building a 50-foot-long sea wall below his house to protect it from future slides, which aren’t unusual on the fragile sandstone bluffs of Solana Beach.

He is among the first few property owners who will have to pay the city new fees to compensate the public for his sea wall’s impact on the environment.

The sea wall impact fees ““ which could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars per property ““ are among the most controversial components of a shoreline management plan the city recently submitted to the California Coastal Commission for consideration.

The Surfrider Foundation and CalBeach Advocates oppose sea walls because of their environmental effects, while bluff-top homeowners argue that the walls are necessary to protect their investment. This year, a four-bedroom, three-bath bluff-top home sold for $3.7 million, and three bluff-top condos sold for $1.8 million each.

Solana Beach’s plan represents a compromise reached in 2005 by a committee of environmental group representatives and homeowners led by former Mayor Doug Sheres. It would allow the city to issue permits ““ and charge fees ““ for sea walls. However, those permits would expire in 2081, at which time the bluff-protection structures would have to be removed.


The owners of bluff-top homes in Solana Beach have sought permits for sea walls to protect their property from landslides, but such walls are opposed by environmental groups such as Surfrider Foundation.

Opponents: Sea walls take up valuable public beach space and interfere with the natural erosion of the sandstone cliffs to produce fresh sand. Over many years, the coastline gradually erodes inward, so a sea wall preventing such erosion means less future beach space.

Proponents: Property owners have a right to protect their homes and land to the boundary of their lot. Also, sea walls benefit public safety by preventing dangerous, unpredictable landslides. As a result, there is more usable beach area.
The result of the compromise was a plan with goals that include both “preserving and enhancing a safe, wide beachfront for use by the public” and “protecting property rights.”

Last year, the city began imposing interim fees on homeowners building sea walls while it calculated the fee schedule. Johnson is among those who paid interim fees of $50,000, agreeing he will make up the difference if the fees for his wall end up higher.

The fees will compensate the public for:

The loss of beach sand, because the sea walls prevent waves from eroding the sandstone bluffs.

The loss of recreational public beach space taken up by the walls.

City officials say the revenues will be used for sand replenishment, beach restoration and to buy bluff-top property.

Under the plan, sometime in the future the city might buy bluff-top homes and demolish the sea walls, restoring the bluffs to their natural state and making the land public open space. There’s no money yet for such purchases, but Mayor David Roberts said the sea wall fees could be one source.

Solana Beach already has enacted a law giving the city a right of first refusal when bluff-top homes are sold.

The Coastal Commission already collects sea wall fees in Solana Beach for sand replenishment, and those fees still will be levied. Property owners in Solana Beach who pay fees to the Coastal Commission will have their city-imposed fees reduced by that amount to avoid double-billing, Roberts said.

While the city awaits Coastal Commission approval of its Local Coastal Program, it is moving forward on setting the fees to implement it, Roberts said.

“We don’t want to lose time,” he said. “We want to have all this in effect and we want to show all the parties that we are very serious about this compromise.”

The city’s lead consultant, Leslea Meyerhoff, is working on the fee structure with municipal consultants and attorneys, including Pacific Municipal Consultants, CIC Research Inc. and Best Best & Krieger.

At a Sept. 18 public workshop, the consultants discussed a methodology for the fees. The city is trying to calculate the value of beaches based, in part, on the average number of daily visitors, the time they spend there and their estimated income levels.

The Surfrider Foundation and other activist groups say the fee amounts should accurately reflect the environmental impact. Some homeowners are worried about being overcharged, while others oppose the fees altogether.

Johnson believes he shouldn’t have to pay any impact fees, saying he is making the beach safer for everyone by reducing the likelihood of landslides and falling rocks. He said his sea wall will cost him at least $500,000.

“To tack a fee onto people building a multimillion-dollar sea wall to keep the bluff from collapsing onto the beach, I think it’s completely wrong,” Johnson said.

It’s small consolation for him that Solana Beach intends to recognize the contribution to safety by reducing the fee amount with a credit for what the city determines is the “public benefit” of a sea wall.

Many homeowners are glad Solana Beach is finally taking steps to manage its shoreline.

“Everybody here that has or will have a sea wall understands the need to pay a sand-loss fee,” said John Steel, who lives in the 72-unit Surfsong condominium complex near Fletcher Cove.

The complex is awaiting Coastal Commission approval to extend its sea wall by 137 feet.

Steel said he supports the city’s plan to gain more control over beaches and bluffs. He doesn’t have a problem with a fee as long as it is reasonable.

“We are taxing ourselves, but at least the money stays close to home,” Steel said.

Staff librarian Merrie Monteagudo contributed to this report.

Tanya Mannes: (619) 498-6639; tanya.mannes@uniontrib.com