San Francisco Chronicle
Santa Cruz’s dilemma — retreat or fight the sea?
Proposed seawall’s opponents want to let nature run its course

Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, December 26, 2003

After a seawall was voted down last month, surfers and ot… Tony Milazzo (left) and Dave Vierra of Santa Cruz County … Surfing retailer Jack O’Neill opposes a seawall near his … Pleasure Point. Chronicle Graphic

The roadway that winds along the bluff at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz offers head-turning views of one of the best surfing spots in California. But pedestrians are well advised to watch their step — and not the surfers — as they stroll this popular promenade.

Chunks of East Cliff Drive have collapsed into the ocean in recent years, and only makeshift wooden railings prevent the inattentive from plummeting 30 feet to the beach below. The road has already been whittled from two lanes to one, and without intervention, erosion will inevitably claim the rest in the coming years.

Intervention, however, is looking unlikely. This surfer’s paradise is at the center of a philosophical tug-of-war, with consequences that extend well beyond Santa Cruz — between those who would put up a seawall to save the road and public access, and those who believe seawalls are an abomination, that nature should be allowed to have its way.

Despite the popularity of the area, Santa Cruz officials may be forced to relinquish both the road and the public bluffs at Pleasure Point to the pounding waves of the Pacific.

The state Coastal Commission unanimously rejected a plan last month by the Army Corps of Engineers and Santa Cruz County to armor the cliff face at Pleasure Point with a sprayed-concrete coating. Anti-seawall forces celebrated the vote as a victory for the concept of “planned retreat” — removing buildings and roads from the path of erosion.

The concept has been embraced by organizations including the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation, a group that works to protect oceans and beaches. Even the Coastal Commission now requires permit applicants to consider relocation to avoid erosion, although it has not adopted planned retreat as a policy.

“What they (the Coastal Commission) are saying here is that this road is not as important as this natural ocean resource,” said attorney Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club Coastal Program who has lobbied against a Pleasure Point seawall. “That (includes) the beach, the bluffs, the surfing resource, the California coast — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘golden dream by the sea.’ “

Coastal Commissioner Dave Potter, who voted against the Pleasure Point project, said organized opposition to seawalls had gained strength and credibility in recent years, though the commission has no mandate to pursue planned retreat.

“Seawalls are very, very controversial, and we want all the alternatives examined,” Potter said. “With more and more coastal development, we have to acknowledge that armoring the coast is bad for the coast.”

The relentless creep of coastal erosion was easier to ignore decades ago, when there was room to spare between cliffs and roads or houses. But along much of the Santa Cruz coastline, as in the rest of the state, there is no more room for a leisurely approach. Miles of the county’s beaches are piled with boulders, and ocean bluffs have been armored with concrete seawalls to absorb the battering forces of the waves.

The extent of coastal armoring has persuaded environmentalists to draw a line in the sand and say no more seawalls, for any reason.

Less enthusiastic are Santa Cruz County officials who face losing public land and a county road, and shudder at the expense of rerouting the utilities that now run beneath East Cliff Drive.

“The planned retreat alternative says, ‘Let it erode,’ ” said Betsey Lynberg, project manager for the Santa Cruz County Redevelopment Agency. “If homes are to be lost, the public buys them and relocates the utilities. In our case that includes sewer, water and gas lines.

“We looked at it in the environmental impact report, and the costs would be $60 million or $70 million, as compared to, say, $5 million for the bluff stabilization project.”

Then there’s the question of what happens once the erosion threatens about a dozen homes on the inland side of East Cliff Drive.

“Sections of the roadway are pretty raggedy,” said Ed Conti, president of the Pleasure Point Night Fighters, a community watchdog organization. “I’d say about 20, 30 percent of the road is in bad shape, and all it takes is one good storm to make more fall in.”

Under California’s Coastal Act, homeowners have the right to protect their homes from imminent danger. According to an analysis by Coastal Commission staff, that means that once the public land between their homes and the ocean has washed away, East Cliff Drive homeowners will be entitled to construct their own seawalls.

“Under the law, we have to permit shoreline structures to protect existing development if there is no alternative,” said Charles Lester, deputy director of the Coastal Commission’s central coast office. “This is a highly urbanized area, and it is eroding. There’s a certain inevitability about this.”

Massara, however, said it would be decades before the ocean ate its way up to the houses, and that even a few extra years without a seawall would be a reasonable trade for the eventual loss of public access to the bluffs.

“It’s a mistake to assume that public access has to be in a vehicle,” Massara said. “Bike paths and pedestrian access are safe for years to come at Pleasure Point.”

Opponents of the seawall plan say slapping a cement face on the cliff would erase a seasonal beach at Pleasure Point and could affect the quality of the area’s surfing. Many argue that seawalls often fail. Others say they are just ugly.

The landmark house of wetsuit inventor and surfing retailer Jack O’Neill clings to the cliff at Pleasure Point like a swallow’s nest. Despite the vulnerability of his location, O’Neill opposes the seawall project.

“A seawall will make it look like Pleasure Point Disneyland out there,” O’Neill said. “We don’t know how it will affect the surf, and we’d probably lose the beach.”

UC Santa Cruz geologist Gary Griggs, an expert on California seawalls and the effects of coastal erosion, says such arguments don’t hold up.

The surf breaks at Pleasure Point are hundreds of feet offshore, and hardening the bluff will not affect them, he said. And unless the county installs sand traps along the shoreline, he said, the beach will eventually vanish because of rising sea levels — seawall or no.

And while some badly engineered seawalls do crumble, others have stayed in place for 75 years, he said.

Griggs is also skeptical of the alternatives that seawall opponents favor, such as planting more vegetation at the top of the bluffs and closing the road to traffic to reduce damaging vibrations.

“The reality is that ice plant will not stop the Pacific Ocean, and traffic vibrations are pretty insignificant,” Griggs said. “People seem to be looking for a magical solution here, but we are facing some very hard decisions.

“It could be 10 or 20 years before the road is closed completely,” he said. “But in 20 years, this area will look pretty different and probably won’t be accessible. What are the public values? What is worth saving?”

Conti thinks the East Cliff road is necessary for safety, as a neighborhood gathering spot and for access for future generations.

“I’m as much of an environmentalist as anyone,” Conti said. “So, is the Sierra Club going to tell me that I can’t ride my bike down East Cliff anymore to check out the surf? To watch the sunset? What are we going to do if there’s no access? There are pros and cons to (the seawall), but I want the youngsters to enjoy what we had growing up.”

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