Coastal Watchdog Gives After-the-Fact OK to Bay Area Seawall

By: MATTHEW RENDA, Courthouse News

BODEGA BAY, Calif. (CN) – The construction of a seawall and its contribution to beach erosion took center stage at the California Coastal Commission’s monthly meeting Wednesday, in the form of a debate between those looking to prevent flooding of a public golf course and those who say seawalls damage beaches and are too little, too late in the face of climate change.

Supporters of a seawall in the Northern California beach town of Pacifica say “coastal armoring” is needed to stop flooding of a golf course and surrounding neighborhoods.

Since the seawall has already been built, the coastal commission voted 9-3 Wednesday to give the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department an after-the-fact permit. But the decision also allows the city department to further armor the existing earthen berm, located directly seaward to Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica.

The after-the-fact aspect of the approval outraged environmentalists, who accused the city department of misrepresenting the construction project as minor. Instead, they say the recreation department pretended to make only minor repairs to the earthen berm in 2013, but actually undertook a massive construction project aimed at shoring up the berm with rocks and other materials – a controversial practice called coastal armoring.

“Fifty thousand pounds of rock was illegally installed,” said Neal Desai, director of field operations for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Anything short of a cease-and-desist order is a celebration of illegal armoring or seawalls at the expense of low cost recreation and coastal access.”

Desai’s words come as an advocate for national parks, including the Golden Gate Recreation Area near the golf course. Several golfing buffs attended the meeting and attested not only to the historic value of the course, designed and built in 1932, but also relative low cost that allows the masses to play a coastal course typically reserved for the well-heeled.

Several residents of the area also attended the meeting, making the case that neighborhoods adjacent to the course and seawall would likely be routinely flooded during winter storms if the parks department didn’t move forward with the coastal armoring.

“In our view, there is a 100 percent certainty that flooding would occur,” said Dan Carl, a member of coastal commission staff that recommended the board approve the permit.

Further complicating the issue, two of California’s most endangered species – the San Francisco garter snake and the red-legged frog – occupy the Laguna Salada wetlands directly inland from the course’s back nine.

Spencer Potter, with the recreation department, said saltwater intrusion into the wetlands might kill the population of red-legged frog, which in turn would drastically reduce a food source for the endangered snake, if the seawall isn’t finished.

“There are a variety of issues with that approach, including whether you could even do that,” Potter said, alluding to potential violations of the Endangered Species Act.

This ultimately forced the hand of commissioners, though several expressed concerns that the 20-year permit for the seawall is only a temporary fix.

“We have published a sea-level rise plan that demonstrates and proves that seawalls and armoring are anathema to what we are trying to do here,” said Commissioner Mark Vargas. “We are trying to fool Mother Nature.”

Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh agreed, saying that the length of the permit should be reduced and the commission should revisit the issue in five years.

“I am concerned about the message we are sending when we see four years of unpermitted action and then award them with a permit,” she said.

Pacifica, a small coastal town located in San Mateo County immediately south of San Francisco, was hit hard by a series of storms this past winter that ultimately broke century-old precipitation records. In some areas, the coastal erosion was so pronounced that apartment complexes had to be evacuated after city and county officials deemed the structures prone to collapse.

Carole Groom, a commissioner who also sits on the San Mateo Board of Supervisors, said the golf course does provide economic vitality to a community still recovering from the effects of a tough winter.

“I hate to disagree with the strong environmental groups,” she said. “But the golf course is an important part of the town economy and the seawall is integral to the survival of those neighborhoods.”

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