The Newport Beach City Council instructed city staff Tuesday to continue trying to request easements from property owners along Buck Gully.
Civil engineers in the city’s Public Works Department are concerned that slopes lining the gully, bounded by Pacific Coast Highway, Hazel Drive, Evening Canyon Drive and the ocean, could shift or fail during storms. Several meteorologists expect an El Niño storm season this winter.
The city is seeking easements granted by property owners in order to complete several projects that would control erosion in the gulch. A secondary benefit of the erosion control project would be the removal of dense, invasive non-native plants and replacement with drought-tolerant, fire-resistant native plants, the city said.
“In order to move forward, we need to have the easements by November,” city Project Manager Bob Stein said.
Following that, construction would begin next summer after the end of the breeding season for threatened and endangered birds, so the work would be completed by the first rains.
“This is the most dangerous kind of construction you can do,” Stein said, especially when the ground is saturated.
The majority of the gully is divided into many private property parcels; the city owns the bottom portion of the gully, near the ocean. Only about 12 property owners out of 26 along the gully have granted permanent easements to the city to date, despite more than a year and a half of meetings, fliers and phone calls.
The city plans to revamp its marketing efforts to help assuage homeowners’ fears of what granting easements could mean.
Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, who represents Corona del Mar and Newport Coast, said she heard residents were concerned the city had “another motive in mind” when it requested the easements.
Many residents who have properties in and around the gully are concerned that granting an easement will mean a loss to development rights, city officials said. Other residents are concerned about the natural beauty of the canyon. Some believe there is no real threat, and that the city is crying wolf.
“I’m inclined to think that the neighbors are perhaps laboring under some misinformation,” Mayor Pro Tem Keith Curry said.
City Atty. David Hunt assured Gardner and the other council members that the easements would be used only for this project, and for occasional inspections as needed.
Stein also said that the residents’ fears were unfounded, and that the city wouldn’t be involved in the properties any more than is necessary to control the potential for erosion.
“Quite frankly, we have other things to do,” he said.
“While there doesn’t appear to be an immediate threat to homes, there is a concern that a large storm event could move large quantities of material out of the stream bed that in turn could cause slopes to fail and potentially threaten homes,” a staff report read.
The 1997-98 El Niño season left large quantities of sediment at the bottom of the gully.
“Our conclusion is that the next big El Niño year, we could see a massive amount of sediment again,” Stein said.
Mitigation efforts similar to those in nearby Morning Canyon are now proposed for the gully. They were enacted after slope failures in that canyon during the 1997 El Niño season, and in 2005 due to low-intensity storms. Several homes were threatened. Stein called the 1997 incident a “catastrophic failure of the slope.” The subsequent erosion-mitigation project in Morning Canyon has had excellent results.
“This canyon probably could handle a 100-year storm with ease,” Stein told the City Council.
Permanent easements were only requested for areas that lay in the flood plain, in which permanent structures already are not permitted to be built.
The city will fully fund the project, despite its being on private property. The Buck Gully project is expected to cost about $2 million, $1.2 million of which has been approved by the City Council to come out of the city’s General Fund. Another $700,000 came from a Proposition 84 grant the city was promised. The grant hasn’t been funded yet, due to state budget issues.
“If the project doesn’t move forward, then we’re looking at perhaps giving some of the money back to the state,” Stein said.
“This is a gift to these residents, as far as I’m concerned,” Councilman Steven Rosansky said. “We’re giving $1.2 million to fix private property … I’m disconcerted that property owners are not contributing to this.”