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Fighting the ocean: Pismo Beach permitted a seawall that would protect three homes, but the California Coastal Commission has other plans 

A prolonged tug-of-war between the California Coastal Commission and local agencies about the effects of sea-level rise has left several beachfront homeowners caught in the middle.

One such couple is Tony and Marilee Hyman of Shell Beach, a coastal neighborhood in Pismo Beach. Since 1991, the Hymans have been living on a cove along a rocky beach. Their house rests there with five other properties, and all, except one, are armored with seawalls to protect the structures from being washed away.

click to enlarge FALLING DOWN As the ocean erodes more and more of the bluffs supporting Pismo Beach homes, the city approves protection measures that a state agency doesn't necessarily want to allow. - COVER PHOTO BY CAMILLIA LANHAM
  • Cover Photo By Camillia Lanham
  • FALLING DOWN As the ocean erodes more and more of the bluffs supporting Pismo Beach homes, the city approves protection measures that a state agency doesn't necessarily want to allow.

The lone unprotected residence belongs to John Okerblom, the Hymans' neighbor who applied for a coastal development permit from the Pismo Beach Planning Commission to authorize a seawall for his property. Though the Planning Commission agreed, the Coastal Commission appealed the decision in December 2021 and took over jurisdiction, citing "substantial issues." Now, Okerblom and the Hymans, who consented to be co-applicants in order to strengthen their home's protection from the sea, might lose their homes.

"The ocean comes in and wraps around the walls of his [Okerblom's] neighbors, and we're one of those neighbors. Our house used to sit about 50 to 60 feet back from the ocean, and the erosion sneaking up from that side has come to 26 feet," Tony said. "That's wrong that they [the Coastal Commission] are prohibiting him when what he does so badly affects the neighbors. Okerblom and us are on good terms; he's trying to save his neighbors on both sides with his wall. It actually helps both of us in many ways as much as it does him."

When the Hymans moved to Shell Beach more than 30 years ago, their home at the time came with a seawall that its previous owners had constructed. But after an engineer told the couple that it's "a 1,000-ton avalanche just waiting to happen," the Hymans repaired it. And they're prepared to partially bear the cost of another seawall, this one meant for their neighbor.

"From the larger perspective, the city of Pismo Beach [wrote] their local coastal plan [LCP], which was approved by Coastal Commission. [Pismo Beach] followed every rule in the LCP and more. It took us two years just to get through the stuff that the city made us do. Then the Coastal Commission said, 'Well, we don't think you followed the rules in your own plan, so we're gonna take over,'" Marilee said. "Their automatic rule is nobody can build the seawall, that's what they really want. They want the whole coast to be public property."

The Coastal Commission's appeal of the Hyman-Okerblom seawall approval is underpinned by a larger conflict where state and local agencies try to balance public access on the coast with private ownership rights. The Coastal Commission favors "managed retreat," where nature is allowed to take its own course and increasingly consume more beach bluffs as a result of climate change. While beachfront property owners, many of whom invested in their structures decades ago, are compelled to pack up and leave.

One of the issues the Coastal Commission raised with the permitted seawall was that the Okerblom residence didn't exist in 1977. The Pismo Beach LCP ratified by the Coastal Commission only allows shoreline reinforcement to protect structures that have been around since Jan. 1, 1977. Construction of the Okerblom residence began in 2009, and was completed in 2013. The Hyman residence, on the other hand, completed construction in 1938. Marilee said that the Coastal Commission ignored the latter fact and focused on the Okerblom house's dates instead.

Rachel Kovesdi, a land use and environmental consultant who assisted the Hymans with their seawall application process, informed coastal commissioners in a letter that three separate site surveys conducted from 2008 to 2021 showed bluff retreat by the Hyman and Okerblom properties at approximately 15 to 18 inches a year.

"Due to the undivided Miocene Monterey Formation and large cobbles in the nearshore environment, the site is subject to wave attack that continues to destabilize the base of the bluff and weaken the overlying terrace deposits, resulting in an immediate threat to the principal structures," Kovesdi's letter stated.

The Hymans and other private property owners aren't the only ones trying to reconcile with the Coastal Commission. Second District SLO County Supervisor Bruce Gibson is trying to do the same from the public agency standpoint. Gibson is one of the co-chairs of the California State Association of Counties' (CSAC) coastal counties group. Since 2019, he has been part of a working group that tries to address sea level rise adaptation with the Coastal Commission.

click to enlarge CRUMBLING AWAY From 2008 to 2021, three separate site surveys of the area by the Hyman-Okerblom residences (pictured) showed that the bluff retreated by 15 to 18 inches each year. - SCREENSHOT FROM ADDITIONAL MATERIALS FOR COASTAL COMMISSION HEARING
  • Screenshot From Additional Materials For Coastal Commission Hearing
  • CRUMBLING AWAY From 2008 to 2021, three separate site surveys of the area by the Hyman-Okerblom residences (pictured) showed that the bluff retreated by 15 to 18 inches each year.

"The Coastal Commission has taken a very aggressive stance in defining existing development as only that that existed before the Coastal Act was passed. It's one of the big questions we are wrestling with—after the Coastal Act was passed, a lot of development has happened," Gibson told New Times.

He added that the commission doesn't necessarily find seawalls to be eyesores for beachgoers, but rather that they would have negative effects on public access. The Coastal Commission's view is that seawalls would prevent the natural erosion of bluffs, consequently blocking sediment to fall and create sand for beaches. But some members in the working group, like Gibson, disagree.

"It's not the erosion of the bluff that's creating the beach, it's more the sediment that comes down the streams that feed into the ocean. It's a much bigger source of sediment," he said.

Gibson proposed a halfway point that the group will discuss over the course of monthly meetings this year. If threatened private properties and critical public infrastructure, such as the Amtrak train tracks in San Diego, get approved for seawall armoring, owners should also pay a mitigation fee that the Coastal Commission and local jurisdictions can use at nearby sites to improve public access.

"Maybe we could purchase a piece of property that would become a public beach or maybe we could create a path from the road to the beach that would allow people to get there more easily," he said.

Other ideas include a voluntary transaction with coastal homeowners where they move out after the public buys their houses, and filling crumbling caves beneath beachfront homes with material that will erode at the same rate as the bluff.

"That will give that property owner further time to enjoy that property and get out of that property. That's the kind of creative thinking we need, and it will require a lot of education," Gibson explained.

While he touts the Coastal Commission's acknowledgment of local jurisdictions' vital role in sea-level adaptation and awareness as a success, Gibson said that the greatest challenge is time. Up for re-election, Supervisor Gibson's position in CSAC is dependent on retaining his seat, which he told New Times he intends to do.

"We have to think in terms much longer than an elected term in office, even longer than people's careers in public service," he said. "We're looking at doing things that'll have an effect 50 or 100 years from now, and government's not used to that time scale." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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