ENCINITAS — San Diego’s largest coastal advocacy group threw its weight behind the California Coastal Commission in its legal fight to maintain its regulatory authority over private seawalls, even as some residents questioned them over their stance.
The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation at a news conference on Monday announced its support of the Coastal Commission in the landmark case Lynch v California Coastal Commission, which will ultimately determine whether the Coastal Commission has the authority to impose time limits on seawall permits, a decision that will have reverberations up and down the state’s coastline.
“This case has huge precedent-setting value,” said Angela Howe, Surfrider’s legal director. “I think it makes it all the more so important to step in and voice our support at this time.”
The news conference coincided with the Coastal Commission’s filing of its legal brief to the state Supreme Court. Surfrider plans to file its own brief in support of the Coastal Commission with the state’s high court in July.
Surfrider hosted a walking tour on Monday along Grandview Beach to the seawall at the heart of the legal battle, owned by homeowners Barbara Lynch and Thomas Frick. Eight months ago, the state Court of Appeal voted to overturn a lower court’s ruling that the state commission overstepped its bounds when it required Lynch and Frick to reapply for a seawall permit after 20 years.
Frick and Lynch’s attorneys have argued that the Coastal Commission’s actions have amounted to a taking of their rights as private property owners, and that the state agency will use the 20-year clause to heap on additional regulations, or force the owners to remove it at that time.
Surfrider representatives on Monday said they believed the time provisions will allow state regulators to assess changes to the coastline at the time homeowners have historically had to go before the stage agency for maintenance permits.
“From our understanding, this wasn’t an arbitrary number,” said Julia Chunn-Heer, Surfrider’s program manager.
Surfrider officials said that seawalls such as the one in question inhibit the natural sand replenishment process along the coastline by blocking the waves from smashing against coastal bluffs, which leads to erosion that ultimately produces at least some of the sand on the coastline.
Recently, they said, there has been a push toward the “armoring” of the coastline with private seawalls, riprap and other man-made obstructions that protect the coast from erosion. This, however, has the adverse effect of limiting sand creation.
“Soon, all we will be left with is wall and water,” Chunn-Heer said.
This, they said, leads to the shrinking of the beaches, which are both a cultural fixture and an economic boon in San Diego County.
“These are some of our most famous places and they are an economic driver,” said Mark West, the Surfrider chapter’s board chairman. “These walls don’t allow for the natural replenishment of sand.”
About 20 people attended Monday’s tour, including several coastal property owners who were skeptical of many of Surfrider’s positions, and concerned about what an unfavorable ruling for Frick and Lynch could mean for their properties.
Mark Francois, who owns property along Neptune Avenue, said that property owners already pay mitigation fees to help replace the sand that is lost due to seawalls. Adding additional regulations is overkill.
“This is private property and the owners are doing this at their expense to protect their homes,” Francois said. “There needs to be more harmony between the Coastal Commission and property owners.”
Others pointed to Army Corps of Engineers’ studies that showed that only a fraction of the sand along San Diego’s beaches comes from the eroded hillsides, which puts a hole in the argument that the seawalls disrupt a key sand producer along the coastline.
Some who attended, however, supported the foundation’s stance. James Zemel, who said he walks along Grandview Beach, said that the seawalls make it inhospitable, and in some places prohibitive, to traverse certain areas of the beach during high tide.
“You can’t walk because the waves are slapping up against the seawalls and it is dangerous,” Zemel said. “It would be nice to be able to enjoy the beach without having to worry about that.”