By Kara Meyberg Guzman, Managing Editor

Posted: 05/01/17, 5:33 PM PDT | Updated: on 05/01/2017

SANTA CRUZ >> For decades, the city of Santa Cruz has ignored the California Coastal Commission’s demands for a plan to manage West Cliff Drive’s erosion, and now, the city may face fines.

Without a long-term vision, the city has armored nearly the entire stretch of the iconic strip, and waited for emergencies “” for sinkholes to form, walls to crumble or piles of rock to fall “” to perform repairs.

Since the 1980s, the commission has asked the city for a long-term plan, which would require an environmental review of the seawalls and riprap (piles of rock buttressing the cliffs), and a consideration of alternate designs.

Now it seems the commission has had enough. On Thursday, Susan Craig, the commission’s Central Coast district manager, issued a letter to Mark Dettle, Santa Cruz’s Public Works Director, saying that if she doesn’t hear back within a month about next steps for a plan, she’ll notify the commission’s enforcement unit.

Scott Collins, deputy city manager, told the Sentinel that the city has neither the funds nor the “gumption” for a long-term management plan but will include a review of West Cliff Drive’s seawalls in its next Climate Adaptation Plan update. But Coastal Commission staff has already said that approach is unlikely to meet its requirements for an environmental review and analysis of options.


Several of the city’s seawalls on West Cliff Drive are unpermitted. Fines are possible but the commission hopes to resolve the violations amicably with the city, said Noaki Schwartz, Coastal Commission spokeswoman. The commission has not begun to calculate how much the city might pay in fines, since “we’re not at that point yet,” Schwartz said.

Some of the city’s violations are for expired emergency permits “” cases in which the city did temporary repairs because property was in danger, but never followed up with a required permanent permit, according to Ryan Moroney, Coastal Commission planner.

For example, in 2003, the city received an emergency permit to place riprap on the bluffs at the end of Columbia Street and Woodrow Avenue. The city then applied for a permanent permit, but didn’t provide the meat of the application “” a technical report, alternatives analysis and evidence of other agency approvals.

So the application was marked as incomplete and the now-unpermitted riprap, which was meant to be temporary, still remains, Moroney said.

“It just kind of sat,” said Moroney. “Nothing’s really happened for 14 years.”

Same thing for a 2014 repair of a sinkhole and sea cave at the same spot “” an emergency permit was issued, and the city filed an incomplete application for a permanent solution. Now those repairs are unpermitted, said Moroney.

In some instances, the city never even sought a permit for repairs. In 2016, again at Woodrow Avenue and West Cliff Drive, the city placed new boulders against the cliffs and repaired a sinkhole. The city could have issued its own emergency permit, but it didn’t, said Moroney

“Public works apparently did it without processing a permit through planning,” Moroney said.


The problem with seawalls is that when sea levels rise, as scientists predict, any beach in front of a seawall will disappear. For instance, a March U.S. Geological Survey study shows that up to two-thirds of beaches in Southern California may disappear by the year 2100.

Riprap also has the immediate effect of covering much of the beach in boulders. For example, in 1998 the city dumped riprap into a dozen pocket beach coves along West Cliff Drive, blocking public access into those beaches, Moroney said.

“Granted, some of the armoring there is for good reason, to protect the pathway and the roadway, but in some cases, you can tell it’s complete overkill,” Moroney said. “Is that much rock really needed? So that’s the idea, to get them to really think about it.”

He said of the vision for West Cliff Drive: “Figure out what’s the long-term plan here. Are we going to remove the riprap and go with something more vertical like at Pleasure Point? Are we going to make West Cliff Drive one-way? What are we going to do with sea level rise? Just dumping riprap is one solution, but it needs to be evaluated with the range of solutions.”Janice Bisgaard, the city public works department’s public information officer said the city will include a review of West Cliff Drive’s seawalls in its next Climate Adaptation Plan update. But Moroney said that plan does not meet the commission’s requirements.


Dettle, the Santa Cruz public works director, was reached for comment, but did not reply. Chris Schneiter, the city’s assistant director of public works, sent a one-sentence email regarding the Sentinel’s request for details on the city’s long-term plan for West Cliff Drive.

“That is not on our current work plan and don’t have anything to add,” wrote Schneiter.

The only substantive response the Sentinel received from the city came from Scott Collins, deputy city manager, who blamed a $150 million-$200 million funding shortfall for capital projects, which include roads, parks, storm drains and facilities, along with cliff repairs.

Collins wrote in an email: “It comes down to costs. The Coastal Commission does not prefer riprap, which is the most cost-effective solution for erosion-related issues. Building seawalls (Coastal Commission preference) is very expensive. Most of the past walls have been grant-funded. These grants are no longer available.”

Collins said the city manages its erosion as many other coastal cities do.

“We try to kind of address the emergencies as they occur and armor those vulnerable locations to provide relief for as long as we can. That has been the approach for most places and we’re just being reactive in a lot of ways,” Collins said.

As for the most recent permitting violations, Collins said the city plans to apply for an emergency permit after the work is done on the 2016 sinkhole repair and riprap placement at Woodrow Avenue. More riprap needs to be placed.

“We have discussed this approach with Coastal Commission staff and they are supportive,” Collins wrote in an email.

Moroney said the commission never gave its blessing of the “backwards” approach Collins described, of applying for emergency permitting after work is done. It never even gave verbal authorization, Moroney said.