The San Diego Union-Tribune

Consultant to decide sea wall fees

By Angela Lau
June 22, 2007

DON KOHLBAUER / Union-Tribune

Solana Beach will impose fees on bluff-top homeowners who want to fill in the sea caves below their property.
Solana Beach’s bluff-top homeowners who want to build sea walls to shore up the fragile cliffs below them will have more to fret about when the city levies new and hefty permit fees.

In an effort to control the proliferation of sea walls that already armor roughly one-half of the city’s coastline, Solana Beach is considering instituting fees that could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The city plans to hire a consultant to figure out the fees, which will include payments for using beach land to erect sea walls or to fill in caves in the bluffs. Footings from the sea walls deprive the public of recreational beach space, city officials say.

Homeowners will also pay for future sand purchases to replenish the beach because their structures prevent the ocean from naturally eroding the bluffs to create sand.

Figuring out a fair fee will take up to a year, Mayor Lesa Heebner said. Meanwhile, emergency sea wall applications continue to flow in. The council decided last week to charge a deposit that will be applied to the new fees. The deposit is $1,000 per foot of the length of the largest bluff-protection device for that property.

“We are the first ones who have done this. We don’t know how it will shake out,” Heebner said.

Jim Jaffee, vice president of CalBeach Advocates, which opposes sea walls, said the fees easily could be several hundred thousand dollars for each homeowner because they would be charged for using the beach until 2081.


Background: Almost half of Solana Beach’s coast is lined with sea walls to protect ocean-front homes from bluff collapse. Last year, the city decided to charge those property owners for using public beaches to build sea walls or fill in sea caves below their properties.

What’s happening: The city is hiring a consultant to determine the fees. For now, anyone who wishes to build a sea wall or fill in a sea cave must pay a deposit of $1,000 per foot of the length of the largest bluff-protection device built for the property.

The future: Bluff-protection fees could be as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. Part of the money will be used to buy sand to replenish the beach.
His assumptions were based on a 2005 agreement reached by a citizens group composed of homeowners who want sea walls and activist organizations that sued the owners and the city to block the walls from being built.

In the agreement, the citizens group recommended removing most of the city’s sea walls by 2081 and establishing a fund to restore the city’s beaches through measures such as sand replenishment.

Their suggestions were approved by the City Council in 2006, which then began drafting sea wall regulations and permit fees.

That means that a homeowner who wants a sea wall ““ which average 50 feet in length in Solana Beach ““ would not only have to pay several hundred thousand dollars for construction, but also a permit fee to the city and the California Coastal Commission.

In addition, if the sea wall is on state land, which begins on or below the ordinary high water mark, the homeowner may be required to pay rent to the state if the sea wall does not benefit the beach-going public.

Bluff-top property owners already know that sea walls are costly. The big unknown is the permit fees the city will charge.

The prospect of paying large fees is an unwelcome thought for David Brehmer, who wants to move his family from Chapel Hill, N.C., back to Solana Beach, where they once lived.

His wife’s family passed down a Pacific Avenue home and Brehmer is coordinating with an adjacent homeowner to build an emergency 170-foot-long, 35-foot-high sea wall and fill in a 20-foot-deep sea cave.

“There’s not much to say,” Brehmer said with resignation in a telephone interview. “Our house is in imminent danger of collapsing. The sea wall won’t take the beach away. It will save lives.”

Although the city’s fees will give homeowners credit for protecting beachgoers and surrounding roads and infrastructure with their bluff-protection devices, Brehmer takes little comfort in it.

He faces huge bills. At nearby Las Brisas condominium on South Sierra Avenue, homeowners shared a $850,000 bill for a 120-foot-long sea wall that was just completed. They also paid the Coastal Commission $248,000 for depriving the public of beach recreational space and $22,000 for preventing the bluffs from being eroded.

The Coastal Commission collects bluff-protection permit fees for Solana Beach and has accumulated $890,000 for sand replenishment, although the money has not been used.

The commission will continue to charge sea wall permit fees and Solana Beach will collect the difference between its fees and the Coastal Commission’s.

City officials say the combined revenues will be used for sand replenishment, beach restoration and even to buy bluff-top homes that have sea walls with the goal of removing the walls and sea cave fillings.

Like many homeowners who have wrestled with the cost of sea walls, Brehmer finds his dilemma comes from Solana Beach’s fragile bluff structure.

Mark Johnsson, a Coastal Commission geologist, said the city’s bluffs consist of a hard bedrock topped by loose sand held together by vegetation. Once the base is eroded and collapses, the sand falls.

He said he has processed more applications for bluff-protection devices from Solana Beach in the past five years than from any other 1½-mile stretch of coastline in Southern California.

When the dust settles, many homeowners will find that their fee woes extend beyond the city to the rent they may have to pay the state for encroaching on the beach.

Of the 37 state land leases in San Diego County, 17 are in Solana Beach, and two pay an annual rent of $1,100 and $5,300 respectively.

All the money talk prompted Warner Gabel, Las Brisas Homeowners Association vice president, to ask how people on a fixed income who bought their homes at a fraction of the price they command today can afford to pay.

“Many didn’t anticipate they would need a sea wall,” he said.