|Description|| The April 13 hearing of the Coastal Commission was electric with anticipation. A crowd of approximately 500 people gathered that first day of the three-day hearing to show their support for commission staff in recommending a “No” vote for the Dept of Parks and Recreation’s proposal to charge fees at historically free beaches in Sonoma County. After seven-plus hours of presentation and public comment, Commissioners voted to continue the item.
Other items heard later in the week included an after-the-fact permit for an Encinitas seawall and other bluff modifications. This item had the beginnings of setting a good precedent; staff called for the application of mitigation fees for the loss of public access and recreation area due to the seawall’s installation. This seawall not only performs as other seawalls do – inhibiting sand replenishment to maintain beach area – but is also a case where high tide already reaches all the way up to the bluff. Factored into the public access and mitigation fee was the fact that the applicant had repeatedly disregarded permitting requirements and ignored staff’s attempts to bring him into compliance for years. Unfortunately, Commissioners thought the fee unwarranted and called for it to be removed and the permit to be granted.
On a more positive note was the approval of a settlement agreement and cease and desist order. This agreement was years in the making, with initial issue stemming from 2009 when the City of Dana Point adopted ordinances (later followed by gates) that heavily restricted beach access to Strands Beach. This was a significant item – it’s successful close reaffirmed the Commission’s authority and the effectiveness of multi-stakeholder involvement and cooperation.
Click on an issue to read full description
|Brown After-the-Fact Permit|| This project brought into discussion the interesting issue of a post-Coastal Act development requiring an after-the-fact permit for a seawall necessary to protect both the applicant’s home and a neighboring pre-Coastal Act development, plus the gravel that was placed on the mid and upper bluff, a new bluff top deck and a “deadman” retaining system on the bluff top.
The deadman retaining system was temporarily authorized under an emergency permit due to a large landslide that occurred in 1996. In 1997, the applicant still had not applied for a regular CDP for the retaining system nor had he applied for a CDP for the new bluff top deck that had been built. The Commission sent a Notice of Violation detailing the ongoing violations, but it was largely ignored. In 1999, additional bluff construction activities were undertaken without Commission approval and a letter to halt construction and reminding the applicants of the need to complete a CDP application was delivered. The back-and-forth of notifications sent, incomplete applications submitted and numerous other letters sent or submitted by the Commission Staff regarding the lack of compliance would continue for years.
A completed application for a CDP was finally submitted in October 2015.
While seawalls and other forms of hard armoring are not something to be celebrated, because this one was required to protect a pre-Coastal Act development, the fact that armoring impacts on sand supply and public access were acknowledged and factored into the conditions of the permit reflects Commission staff’s good work.
Originally, as a condition for the permit, the applicant was to pay a sand supply fee of $1,096. He would have also been required to pay a public access and recreation mitigation fee of $154,662 if Commissioners hadn’t opted to drop it due to claims of inequity with how past permits were issued to neighboring properties, ignoring the fact that the neighbors took permitting steps in a timely and cooperative manner. The sand supply mitigation fee was calculated to determine the volume of sand that would have reached the beach if not prohibited by the shoreline armoring over a 22-year period. The public access and mitigation fee would have been to mitigate for the adverse impacts to public access and recreation resulting from the project (due to loss of beach). The final motion held the applicant responsible for the sand supply fee, but not the public access and recreation mitigation fee. He was determined to be responsible for a fee of $5,833 (factored by the square impacts of the wall).
|Sonoma Coast Parking Fees|| California’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) continued to push its plan to implement new fees at gravel parking lots in very rural stretches of the Sonoma coast. This was the second hearing before the Coastal Commission on DPR’s proposal, and the crowd of approximately 500 people, including dozens of low-income family members and high school students, at the April 13 Santa Rosa hearing were unanimously opposed to the new fees.
At the hearing last April, the Commission requested DPR provide specific types of data and documentation to support the new fee proposal. At this month’s hearing, DPR had still not provided adequate data, planning, outreach or communication. The Coastal Commission staff strongly recommended denial of the proposal both due to the incomplete application and the likely impact on lower income families and community members.
The Sonoma coast is remote and lacking public transportation, and the only way to get to the beach is by car. While both Sonoma County and DPR have parks and beach access parking lots where fees are required, Bodega Head, Shell Beach, Goat Rock and Stump Beach have historically been free. Each provides unique experiences including tide-pooling, river-wading, whale watching and a way to check ocean conditions from shore.
The Commission’s staff report highlighted the fee issue as a social justice issue. The proposed charge of $8 would deter many people from visiting state beaches and parks and would diminish the ability of others to visit as often. The reality is, for many residents of Sonoma County, $8 is a substantial charge especially when the cumulative amount is considered. A weekly trip to the beach would end up costing a family over $400 per year. Particularly touching testimony came from Kashia Pomo tribal members who pointed out that these are sacred spots and DPR would essentially force them to “pay to pray.”
Prior to the vote, acting Executive Director Jack Ainsworth strongly advised against the motion to continue, emphasizing the amount of time already given to the proposal, the ever-increasing staff workload and the disruption of other priorities including efforts to assist counties with Local Coastal Plans, a long-standing issue of urgency.
Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart had testified that her agency would be glad to take over management of Bodega Head – the most visited of the state beaches pegged for new fees – in order to keep the park open without new fees. Ultimately Commissioners voted to direct members of the Coastal Commission, Commission staff, DPR, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and Sonoma County Parks convene to work out a path forward.
Despite the Commission punted its decision until after these forthcoming meetings, and ignored the staff recommendation and the public’s demands, the fact that DPR’s proposal wasn’t approved outright means coastal access hasn’t been lost – yet. As the saying goes, “In the environment, every victory is temporary, every defeat permanent.” The battle continues….
|Strands Settlement Agreement & Cease and Desist Order|| This case began in 2009 when the City of Dana Point adopted ordinances that restricted coastal access to the Strand Beach access areas. The hours that the City decided upon to allow public access were enforced by the installation of gates, locking of said gates and installation of signs. This was done without a coastal development permit – which Commission Staff notified the City was required due to the significant impact on intensity of beach use.
In addition to the Commission working to address this issue, in 2010 the Surfrider Foundation additionally challenged the City’s declaration and the case was taken to court. Litigation has been ongoing, but the City agrees to drop their lawsuit appeals as part of this Settlement Agreement.
This settlement agreement allows for the gates currently present to be locked in the open position at all times and modified to diminish their visual mass; however, the developer and residents may challenge the City and petition the Commission to allow for locking the now un-permitted gates after posted access hours. The agreement also allows for unrestricted access at the Strand Access Areas (unless hours of operation are otherwise authorized under the Coastal Act). Additionally, the city will provide a combination of funds for coastal programs for children at Title 1 schools and construct new trails at the Headlands Reserve as well as install interpretive signs at the access areas and enhance public access; complementing this will be the installation of bike racks and benches. Web-based coastal access information will also be developed in Cooperation with Commission Staff to highlight the public access amenities available at the Headland development.