Fight over sea walls headed to court


SOLANA BEACH, Calif. — As befits its name, issues of sand and surf loom large in this seaside community north of San Diego.

For more than three decades, controversy has surrounded the proliferation of privately built sea walls meant to protect bluff-top homeowners along the city’s approximately 1.7 miles of oceanfront.

Property owners say the walls are the only way to keep the pounding waves from inexorably undercutting the tall bluffs and imperiling their pricey homes.


Environmentalists view the sea walls — built on public and private property — as abominations that shrink the beach and place private interests above the right of the public to enjoy the coast.

Three lawsuits were filed recently after the City Council adopted a land-use plan that requires any permit for a new seawall, or for expansion or upgrading of an existing seawall, to expire after 20 years.

After 20 years, if the new or upgraded wall does not pass muster for renewal, the wall would have to be torn down.

Some of the concrete walls are 30 to 40 feet tall, more than 200 feet long, anchored to the sandstone bluff by metal rods, and designed to look “natural.” One such wall designed to safeguard five homes cost approximately $2.5 million.

Homeowners argue that they are being sacrificed because city officials are eager to please the California Coastal Commission, which likes the 20-year idea.

Activists at the Surfrider Foundation applaud the city, saying it is finally standing up to the owners of the upscale condos and single-family homes that line the bluffs.

The council is set to consider amendments on May 22 to its local coastal plan that some officials hope will placate the property owners and thwart the litigation.

But the dispute is so entrenched that the chance of ending the lawsuits before they reach court appears remote.

“We call it Solana Wall, not Solana Beach, because it’s been so armored,” said Julia Chunn-Heer, beach-preservation coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation.

Bluff-top homeowner Chris Hamilton, president of the Beach and Bluff Conservancy, accuses the council of illegally decreasing the value of private property — what lawyers call a “taking” without compensation.

With a 20-year expiration clause on sea wall permits, the resale value of all bluff-top homes will be sharply reduced, said Hamilton, a physicist formerly employed at General Atomics in La Jolla. “They want to make it very difficult for anyone to live here,” he said.

To Jonathan Corn, attorney for the homeowners, the city and the Coastal Commission are enforcing a “managed retreat” by attempting to force people away from the bluff in violation of the Coastal Commission charter that calls for the protection of property rights.

“This is a huge policy shift that has not gone through the democratic process,” said Corn, whose involvement in sea wall litigation dates back a decade to when he was sued over the wall he built after El Niño conditions eroded the bluff to within eight feet of his home. He won the lawsuit but has since moved inland.

The Surfrider Foundation has an opposing view, expressed in its oft-heard mantra: The beach belongs to everyone, not just those who can afford a front-row seat.

Diana Lilly, coastal planner in the Coastal Commission’s San Diego office, said the commission is trying to balance the needs of the property owners and the rights of the public. She’s worked on the Solana Beach issue “forever,” she said.

In the long run, she hopes property owners learn to build, or remodel, farther back from the edge of the bluff in order to reduce their risk from erosion without building walls. Besides, she said, “sea walls are pretty ugly to look at.”

The Solana Beach council’s incentive to please the Coastal Commission is clear. Until the commission gives final approval to a city’s coastal land-use plan, planning authority over land-use issues in the coastal zone is basically split between the city and the commission.

For a skinny city like Solana Beach (population 13,000, mostly west of Interstate 5) the coastal zone constitutes virtually the entire municipality.

With litigation pending, the city manager and City Council members are keeping mum.

Earlier this year, Corn won a court ruling for a couple in neighboring Encinitas who objected to the 20-year expiration clause being imposed in that city.

A San Diego judge, in his ruling, agreed that “the 20-year limit is simply a power grab designed to obtain further concessions in 20 years or force the removal of sea walls.” As a Superior Court decision, however, the ruling does not set a precedent for similar cases.

At the level of the beach, most of the Solana Beach bluff is sandstone. Higher up, the bluff has a layer of sand that is susceptible to erosion from wind and winter rains.

Without the sea walls, that sand would tumble onto the beach, providing a kind of natural barrier to the waves, and thus increasing the width of the beach.

But with sea walls in place, the sand from the upper bluff piles up behind those walls. A wave rolls inland until it hits a wall, thus decreasing the size of the beach, particularly at high tide, and also, according to some experts, hindering the natural replenishment of sand from the ocean onto the beach.

“Solana Beach is particularly unlucky with its geological situation,” Lilly said. “It may be unique in California.”

Corn said that the sea walls, rather than being cursed, should be praised for keeping beach-goers safe from the kind of massive slides that have killed five people on San Diego County beaches since 1995.

None died in Solana Beach, Corn noted, adding: “You can thank the sea walls.”