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Controversial effort to address seawalls to be reconsidered

A proposed state bill that environmentalists worry would make it easier for homeowners and others to build seawalls in Orange and San Diego counties — and accelerate the loss of beaches — is headed back to the drawing board after a Tuesday committee hearing.

State Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said her bill is intended to prevent accidents like the bluff collapse in Encinitas that in August killed three beachgoers. She said she expects to continue discussions with lawmakers and those involved with coastal protection to produce a proposal that will streamline approval processes for addressing coastal erosion.

“It’s safe to say there will be amendments,” Bates said following the Tuesday hearing on the bill by the Senate Committee Committee of Natural Resources and Water. “Knowing what seawalls can do, I’m totally in favor if that’s the last option.”

Opponents have questioned whether the bill would protect beachgoers or simply help stave off damage to multimillion-dollar ocean-front homes at the expense of public beaches.

“It’s not necessary. It won’t prevent a future event,” the Coastal Commission’s Sarah Christie said at the Tuesday hearing.

“The commission has never received a seawall request for this location. … The bill is designed to make it cheaper and easier to construct seawalls, primarily for the benefit of private property owners.”

The commission, a state regulatory agency that oversees coastal development, has grown increasingly at odds with oceanfront property owners over how to deal with rising seas.

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that over the next 80 years two-thirds of all beaches in Southern California could be swallowed by the ocean. Seawalls can accelerate that process because rising seas batter the structures and carry away the sand at the seawall base.

Instead of seawalls, the state commission and environmental groups prefer a combination “soft” armoring — such as sand dunes and coastal marshes — and “managed retreat,” which involves removing or relocating oceanfront buildings, roads, train tracks and other infrastructure to allow the ocean to advance inland.

The commission has made headlines in recent years for rejecting seawall proposals and for requiring unpermitted seawalls to be removed.

Bates, whose coastal district extends from Dana Point to Encinitas, called for a balance between managed retreat and other approaches. She also said her bill had been misinterpreted.

“It got totally distorted by the seawall issue,” she said. “There’s nothing in this bill that gives someone the right to build a seawall.”

But even the Natural Resources Committee staff report on her bill raised a number of concerns.

Current Coastal Commission policy generally allows seawalls only for buildings constructed prior to the 1976 Coastal Act, approved by voters to protect the coast and the public’s access to beaches.

But according to the committee staff report, Bates’ bill would redefine that “existing development” as anything in place as of May 1, 2020, “grandfathering in an additional 42-plus years of structures…”

The report also said the bill didn’t prevent coastal erosion, didn’t promote public safety and “provides an implicit public subsidy to private landowners.” That “subsidy” was because landowners would not have to pay more than $25,000 for mitigation necessitated by environmental damage caused by their seawalls or other protective structures, the report said.

Bates said the commission’s permit approval process can drag on for years, hurting landowners.  She said her intent is to develop a process that is faster in addressing coastal conflicts between landowners, regulators and mother nature.

Urgent action needed

Other coastal erosion problems cited by Bates include the October 2018 collapse of a beach walkway at Capistrano Beach and a November 2019 bluff collapse in Del Mar that drew the public’s attention to the vulnerability of coastal rail lines.

But recent Southern California seawall conflicts with the Coastal Commission have focused mostly on private property owner requests for structures.

In February, the commission unanimously rejected a permit for new seawall at Dana Point’s Strands Beach even though the agency’s own geologist said it would leave the multi-million dollar homes on top of the bluff vulnerable to landslides.

And in August 2018, the commission unanimously ordered the removal of a refortified Laguna Beach seawall that protected a newly remodeled beachfront home. The commission ruled that the extensive remodeling violated the seawall’s existing permit, which said the armoring must be removed if there was a major renovation of the home. The issue is now in litigation.

Those decisions were driven by the commission’s belief that the ocean — and beaches — should be allowed to advance landward, even at the eventual expense of some existing buildings. While the commission’s historical focus has been on beach access and coastal preservation, dealing with rising seas has joined the forefront of the agency’s attention in recent years.

The urgency to address the issue of rising seas and coastal erosion has been buoyed by a series of reports, including one from the non-partisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office in December. That report detailed the critical need for action over the next decade and noted that most preparations so far are only in beginning stages.

Between $8 billion and $10 billion of existing property will be underwater by 2050 and another $6 billion to $10 billion will be at risk at high tide, according to a study cited in the report. With the state estimating a half foot or more of sea level rise by 2030 — and as much as 7 feet by 2100 — it’s crucial to take extensive measures over the next 10 years or so, the report said.

As an example, the report points to how coastal marshes can be established and fortified to create natural buffers against waves. But if those new marshes aren’t established by 2030, they “may not have sufficient time to develop.”

Source: Orange County Register

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