Surfrider backing coastal commission in Encinitas seawall lawsuit


In front of a seawall that triggered a potentially precedent-setting case, San Diego Surfrider Foundation on June 8 voiced support for periodic review of the man-made structures.

Pacific Legal Foundation, representing two Encinitas homeowners, is challenging the California Coastal Commission’s ability to review and put a 20-year time limit on a Grandview Beach seawall.

This power to reassess the need for a seawall in 20 years tramples on private property rights, the Pacific Legal Foundation believes. But San Diego Surfrider representatives during the press conference argued that seawalls choke off sand that is key to maintaining healthy beaches.

In December, the California Supreme Court announced it will hear the case, possibly affecting the lifespan of seawalls across the state.

“Since this is the highest court in the land, it’s going to set an important precedent,” said San Diego Surfrider Legal Director Angela Howe during the press conference, which was attended by about 25 people.

Howe said seawalls are built to protect blufftop homes, but they also prevent cliff erosion that puts sand back on the beaches. The structures shrink beaches at the expense of recreation and wave quality, she added.

“We support the California Coastal Commission’s regulating authority so that we can all have the beaches our coastal communities hold so dear,” Howe said.

Surfrider is filing a “friend of the court” brief in July to support the coastal commission in the legal battle, Surfrider staff confirmed after the press conference.

A 2010 storm destroyed the 100-foot wide seawall and an adjoining staircase. The coastal commission denied the homeowners’ request to rebuild the staircase and approved the seawall on the condition it expires in 20 years. At that time, the homeowners would have to reapply to the commission, but if their request was rejected, the wall would be torn down.

To back up its position, Surfrider cited a Stanford Law School study that found “coastal armoring has diminished California’s beaches and habitat, limited beach access and impeded coastal recreation, caused increased erosion to neighboring properties and marred the natural beauty of the coast.”

The study recommends alternatives like relocating property and more state funding for natural protection, including sand dunes.

Surfrider’s message wasn’t supported by all at the press conference. After it finished, resident Mary Kinney said the coastal commission’s stance would result in homes tumbling into the ocean, worrying her friend who lives on Neptune Avenue at the top of the bluffs.

“You have to think about the future,” she said. “Do you want everything to fall down?”

Kinney said instead of removing seawalls, the focus should be on sand replenishment projects, adding that those have successfully widened Encinitas beaches in the past.

“There used to just be cobblestones here,” she said, motioning toward the beach.

Encinitas and Solana Beach hope to implement a joint project that would regularly dump offshore sand on beaches over a 50-year period. Recently, top brass at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers voted to advance the plan, an important step in the quest for federal funding.

When reached after the press conference, attorney J. David Breemer with Pacific Legal Foundation said the California Coastal Act gives homeowners the right to protect their property if it’s threatened.

Breemer added that seawalls should be granted on a case-by-case basis by weighing their benefits versus impacts.

“The idea that we should never have seawalls — that’s very unrealistic,” he said.

The foundation, an advocate for limited government, took on the case pro bono after legal bills mounted for homeowner Thomas Frick and neighbor Barbara Lynch. The homeowners have argued that a 20-year limit on their joint seawall would hurt their property values and put their homes at risk.

In a legal brief filed June 8, the coastal commission said that periodic review is important, since factors like rising sea levels can reshape the coastline.

It’s expected the California Supreme Court will hear the seawall case later this year or early next year.