ENCINITAS — A Leucadia resident who witnessed a fatal bluff collapse that claimed the lives of three family members last summer in Encinitas is rallying support for legislation to improve public safety on beaches by allowing local municipalities and homeowners to more easily install protective barriers along the shoreline.
Charlie McDermott, founder of SoCal Bluff Alliance, was with his daughter at Grandview Beach when a 30-foot-long slab of sandstone crashed onto the sand, killing Anne Clave, her mother Julie Davis, and Clave’s aunt, Elizabeth Cox.
“I saw them dig out the victims,” McDermott told The Coast News. “They seemed like fantastic people and great community members. I swore it would never happen again. It was totally unnecessary.”
McDermott shared his experience and concerns with Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), who responded by introducing Senate Bill 1090.
The proposed bill would revise the California Coastal Act of 1976 by requiring the California Coastal Commission to grant permits to city, county and state agencies, in addition to oceanfront homeowners, for the installation of drainage systems, retaining walls, seawalls and erosion resistant landscaping to help prevent future fatalities on public beaches.
Additionally, SB 1090 imposes a “sand mitigation offset” requirement to help balance any potential loss of coastal sand supply due to these protective barriers. Specifically, property owners would be responsible for up to $25,000 of sand replenishment in front of the barrier.
The bill is scheduled for its first public hearing in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on May 26 at the State Capitol building in Sacramento.
For McDermott, the change to the law is about saving lives and putting local officials on notice.
“It’s guaranteed there will be more fatalities,” McDermott said. “When it comes to local politicians, we are going to give everybody a chance to respond, but we want to know where everybody stands. So, the next people that get killed, people will know right where to go.”
Longtime Encinitas resident Dr. Patrick Davis, who is the father, husband and brother-in-law of the Grandview bluff-collapse victims, is a co-founder of the SoCal Bluff Alliance and also backs SB 1090.
“In a coastal city like ours, where ocean cliffs exist, we need to prioritize protecting human lives on our beaches,” Davis told the Encinitas City Council just weeks after the tragic incident. “It may come by building protective walls or providing for constant sand replenishment or making certain beaches off-limits.”
McDermott also created a website outlining the proposed legislation and shared an online petition, which has thus far received 3,446 signatures.
The bill has received a wave of support across San Diego County, including endorsements from Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, Encinitas mayoral candidate Julie Thunder, Encinitas District 2 candidate Susan Turney and 76th Assembly District candidate Melanie Burkholder.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to support the legislation, with Supervisor Nathan Fletcher voting against.
But the legislation has received strong resistance from Surfrider Foundation and the state’s Coastal Commission, which voted to oppose the legislation last week.
According to a Coastal Commission staff report, SB 1090 will effectively override requirements within Section 30253 of the Coastal Act, requiring the commission and local governments to approve “coastal armoring projects,” such as seawalls, berms and retaining walls, without sufficient time for review.
Ultimately, this would lead to a permanent loss of public beaches “for the temporary benefit of the relatively few landowners fortunate enough to own oceanfront property,” the report states.
Jim Jaffee, a co-chair of Surfrider Foundation’s beach preservation committee, said the increase of seawalls will essentially destroy the beach.
“Our biggest opposition (to SB 1090) is the detrimental effect seawalls have on the shoreline,” Jaffee said. “If we fix the beach with concrete, there will be no beach. How can the beach be safe if there is no beach?”
Jaffee said the bill would “gut the protections” under current state law regarding seawalls, change the effective date for existing structures to May 1, 2020, and provide temporary protections for bluff-top properties while eliminating the beach for the general public.
Jaffee also believes McDermott, who recently purchased a home along the bluff on Neptune Avenue in Leucadia, has an inherent conflict of interest in his support of SB 1090.
“He’s worried about his property,” Jaffee said. “But the only people sacrificing will be the beachgoing public.”
Bates, who represents the 36th District covering South Orange County, North San Diego County and Camp Pendleton, acknowledged Jaffee’s concerns of shoreline reduction but noted the bill does attempt to mitigate these issues.
“I’m not disputing that when there are seawalls, you lose beach,” Bates told The Coast News. “But when you’re replenishing, you are basically repairing the beach. This particular bill requires individuals seeking mitigation to provide that and it’s not an inexpensive process.”
Bates said she put forth this legislation to have these types of discussions and she is open to amendments and revisions suggested by the committee (Bates also wrote an op-ed exclusive to The Coast News regarding SB 1090 available here).
According to the California Coastal Records Project, the Grandview bluff, near the site where a portion of the cliff collapsed last August, was actively graded in the 1970s for the development of several Leucadia bluff-top apartments and condominiums.
The removal of soil due to construction activity, in addition to stormwater drainage, irrigation from blufftop properties and heavy rainfall have all been recognized as potential contributing factors of rapid bluff erosion.
Additionally, the construction of groins, seawalls and concrete embankments along the shoreline may have increased the rate of shoreline retreat by preventing cliffs from naturally replenishing beaches with sand.
David Revell, founding principal and chief scientist of Integral Consulting, an environmental consulting firm, said the building of seawalls is likely more responsible for bluff erosion than the development at the top of the cliffs.
“To say that seawalls would help the public is a farce,” Revell said. “Coastal armoring shouldn’t be used as a public safety measure to protect private property unless there are substantial public benefits of the project for a set period of time. The priority should be protecting the beach and access to it. That’s where cities and counties get their revenue.
“I don’t think the answer is to circumnavigate the Coastal Act to protect a few one-percenters that have had that property for 50 years and are paying next to nothing in property taxes because of Prop 13,” Revell said.
But McDermott denied that SB 1090 was a property issue for him, and he believes organizations such as Surfrider are seeking “a rewilding of the coast in urban areas at any cost.”
“I grew up here,” McDermott said. “It’s not like I’m some oil baron redneck that just showed up here and loves cement. The opponents say seawalls will be like a Berlin Wall from here to San Francisco. But nobody mentions the safety issue.”