Ocean May Turn Disputed Oregon Townhomes Into Surf City
From behind the caution tape of a beach stairway that leads nowhere, Cheryl Wiley watched her life savings slip away with each lick of the rising tide.
Experts say the bluff she’s standing on could fall into the surf at any time, taking with it 32 luxury townhomes that straddle the shoreline.
“We used to think these waves were so beautiful,” Wiley said. “Now we look at them in a different way.”
Oregon’s rugged coast is dotted with developments rising from the bluffs and tiny spits of land. Although the state’s history is rife with stories of towns washed away, people lured by the views continue to ignore the warning signs and build anyway.
“What did they expect?” asked Lori Carpenter, who lives near the threatened Capes development. “Those homes are built on the local garbage dump and a sand dune. We knew they wouldn’t last.”
Hoping to halt the slide’s gradual march toward the exclusive gated development, homeowners agreed to assess themselves $650,000 to pump water out of the saturated dune.
But they were dealt a crucial blow Feb. 3 when the governor and state officials denied their emergency request to place rock fortifications, or riprap, along the base of the cliff to temporarily halt the slipping. Two days later, the governor said he would act if the county endorsed the plan. On Wednesday, the Tillamook County commissioners unanimously refused to do so.
“Some of these homes are going to go down, no doubt about it,” Commissioner Jerry Dove said. “But we have to follow the letter of the law.”
State land-use laws forbid rock work on beaches to protect developments built after 1977. The laws came after a boom in beach development triggered a flurry of riprapping that armored long stretches of the coast and shifted erosion problems to other areas.
Stunned homeowners in the Capes complex, where units can cost up to $400,000, personally took their case to Gov. John Kitzhaber, to no avail. “I’m not going to do that,” Kitzhaber said after meeting with homeowners for two hours on Thursday.
“It doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic,” he said at a news conference. “But if you do it there, then you have to do it for everyone else. I think that would destroy the integrity of our beach law, which is part of the state’s heritage.”
Capes Homeowners Assn. president Tom Hendrickson said other options are being explored to save the homes.
Those include physically moving the most threatened homes back from the edge of the cliff or bringing in more sand to slow down erosion at the base of the cliff.
“We’re looking forward to working with the state and county to save our neighbors’ homes,” Hendrickson told reporters.
Homeowner Kathryn Madison, whose $370,000 townhouse is perhaps nearest to the brink, was disheartened. “The whole sickening thing is that we are standing here and can’t do anything to help ourselves,” she said.
Chuck Holliman, a board member with the homeowners association, conceded that the future looks grim. “If the state doesn’t let us put in a permanent fix, every home on that bluff will be in danger,” he said.
But if Capes residents are looking for sympathy, they’re not going to get it from their neighbors. Longtime residents of surrounding Netarts and Oceanside are reacting with a resounding “We told you so.”
They say they knew the sand bluff wouldn’t hold. For years, they say, they watched the property--a former landfill--shift and change.
Leaning across the counter of a local restaurant, a waitress said it was just a matter of time.
“Those of us who lived here knew this was going to happen,” said the 20-year Oceanside resident who didn’t want to give her name. “We feel sorry for those people, but they didn’t do their homework. They got hooked into the charm of the salesman.”
Many of the locals fought the Capes when it was first proposed in the 1980s, fearing that the complex would encroach on their cherished small-town charm and their self-proclaimed “land of cheese, trees and ocean breeze.”
“It was a beautiful, quiet village,” said Elkie Powers, a clerk at the Tillamook Library who moved to Oceanside 10 years ago. “The Capes never fit.”
The neat row of threatened townhomes sits atop a huge dune, towering 150 feet above the pounding waves that are slowly eating away the base of the cliff.
Geologists believe the erosion began during the storms of 1996. The channel of nearby Netarts Bay shifted, putting added pressure on the bluff. When the high tides of El Nino moved in this year, it only compounded the problem.
As the base of the dune eroded, a 2-inch fissure opened up near the top of the bluff in December and quickly grew into an 8-foot gash.
Richard Rinne, an engineering geologist hired by Capes homeowners, said the entire development is at risk of sliding into the ocean if nothing is done.
“This is a landslide that has been moving for several hundred years,” Rinne said. “I wouldn’t have bought on that bluff.”
But Franklin Piacentini, the project’s developer, said there was no way to know that six years after the plans were approved by Tillamook County, the beach would be swallowed by an unpredictable ocean.
“We abided by all the requirements,” he said. “The county inspected and approved everything we did.”
Initial engineering studies on the project said the slope was unstable, prone to slides and drainage problems.
A 1982 report from Northwest Testing Laboratories, the developer’s consultant, recommended the homes be set back by at least 60 feet from the crest due to “continuing or renewed earth movements.”
That setback recommendation was changed to 10 feet by the time the project was approved.
“Everything we had told us that this was a very suitable place for building,” said Piacentini, who owns a home on the threatened bluff. “The records that we have tell us that this was an old, stabilized dune.”
That’s what retiree Lenora Lawrence believed when she moved in with her husband several years ago, joining buyers that included former Sen. Mark Hatfield.
“We felt so lucky to live here,” she said. “We just fell in love with it the minute we saw it.”
The Capes feature weathered shingles and white trim, breathtaking views and what was described in a brochure as a wide beach “that’ll remind you of how Oregon beaches used to be.”
The beach is gone, but the sales office is open and construction crews continue to build on lots throughout the complex. The brochure promises peace of mind. But given the current conditions, some owners have doubts.
“I was going to sit here and read, maybe study quantum physics or write a science fiction book for my grandson,” said Lawrence, one of a few year-round residents. “All I’m doing is learning about legal stuff that I never cared about. I just resent it.”
Locals can’t help but draw a parallel with Bayocean, the doomed luxury development just a few miles north that was washed away in the 1950s.
“They didn’t learn their lesson,” said Paul Fournier, a Netarts resident and an editor at the Tillamook County Headlight-Herald.
He said the issue is about more than a few vacation homes. Riprapping the dune could affect the rest of the coast by diverting wave action and erosion.
“Everybody in Oregon has a stake in this,” Fournier said. “It’s a public beach.”
For the Capes homeowners, the stake seems greater than most. Insurance won’t cover their losses, and their property values probably will plummet. The ocean’s assault is not expected to let up any time soon, with high tides predicted for the next few months.
“I would say our home is worth about zero right now,” Wiley said from the edge of the dune, watching the waves come in white, go out brown.
“You know what they say,” she said. “Nature reclaims.”