ENCINITAS — Slowly, rain and high tides are chipping away at the steep cliffs on Grandview Beach.
The unceasing assault is a concern for Thomas Frick, whose home is among those perched just above the bluffs. His solution: a seawall.
Frick and other homeowners argue seawalls — typically concrete or wooden barriers installed at the base of cliffs — are necessary to prevent valuable oceanfront property from tumbling into the sea. But environmentalists and other groups say the seawalls shrink the beaches at the expense of locals and visitors alike.
Frick’s legal fight over the California Coastal Commission imposing a 20-year sunset clause on his seawall is a focal point in the public versus private property rights debate.
“Most people would say, ‘we’ve had it’ and concede,” he said. “We’re still continuing the case even though we’re up against Goliath.”
Nearly a decade ago, Frick and neighbor Barbara Lynch applied for repairs to their crumbling seawall. The request took on added urgency when a powerful storm in 2010 swept away much of the structure.
By mid-2011, the coastal commission approved a new 100-foot wide seawall, but conditioned the permit to expire in 20 years. Once that time passes, the commission would reassess the need for a seawall at the location, opening up the possibility of it being torn down.
In response, Frick and Lynch sued the coastal commission over the 20-year condition, arguing it would illegally decrease their property values.
Frick explained that a seawall, sans sunset clause, increases the likelihood of the land staying put, maintaining the home’s worth.
“If you want to sell, no one will want to buy the property with a 20-year condition,” Frick said.
Last March, Superior Court Judge Earl Maas sided with Frick and Lynch. He ruled that the coastal commission’s “arbitrary and unreasonable” 20-year clause trampled over the homeowners’ rights.
But the coastal commission appealed, stating the judge’s ruling amounts to a seawall in perpetuity. The appeal is due to be heard sometime this year.
By his own estimate, Frick has incurred around $175,000 in legal bills over the seawall.
With legal fees building, Frick and Lynch couldn’t afford to continue the fight. But the Pacific Legal Foundation, an advocate for limited government across California, agreed last month to take the case pro bono.
Jennifer Thompson, an attorney with the foundation, said striking the 20-year condition would vindicate homeowners looking to protect their property.
“Building seawalls is written into the state’s constitution and the coastal act,” she said, adding homeowners pay the cost to construct the seawalls.
In Encinitas alone, there are 88 seawalls, according to a city count in 2011. And Thompson believes the case could help set a legal precedent across the state.
In recent years, the commission’s 20-year idea has generated controversy across coastal cities, particularly in Solana Beach.
Homeowners sued after the Solana Beach City Council adopted a land-use plan calling for a sunset clause on new, upgraded or expanded seawalls. They argued the city left bluff-top residents out in the cold by following the coastal commission’s recommendations.
The commission’s opening brief for the Frick and Lynch appeal states that it’s important to reevaluate seawalls every 20 years considering how much the coastline could change in light of sea-level rise and future development. It also noted that new fortifying efforts, which don’t have the environmental drawbacks of seawalls could come online.
“The commission reasonably responded to this uncertainty by authorizing seawalls for 20 years,” it states.
Sarah Christie, a spokeswoman with the coastal commission, said that seawalls diminish the public’s enjoyment of the beach by cutting off a natural source of sand replenishment.
“If you armor the coastline, you’re choking off the natural sand supply,” Christie said. “Beaches get narrower and narrower and the public has to deal with that.”
Lynch and Frick are required to contribute a fee of $31,500 for the seawall to offset the sand that would otherwise trickle to the beach, according to the coastal commission’s brief.
But the commission has argued mitigation fees aren’t enough to make up for seawall sand loss. Instead, it’s sought to limit new seawalls in California over time by encouraging developers to place new buildings farther away from the ocean — what’s called “managed retreat.”
However, Thompson countered that a managed retreat could doom current bluff-top homeowners.
Encinitas experiences a net loss of 102,000 cubic yards of sand every year, according to a city staff analysis.
Along with seawalls, another factor in the loss: inland dams blocking off river sediment from flowing to beaches.
Bob Guza, a research scientist with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said it’s difficult to gauge which has a greater impact on sand deprivation — dams or the seawalls, because there are few historical records and studies tracking how much the cliffs have retreated over time.
Depending on the location and the weather in a given year, seawalls can have no effect on erosion or become a “significant public nuisance,” he said.
“In a wet, stormy year, seawalls prevent cliff erosion (as intended) and thus prevent cliff sand from reaching the beach,” Guza noted in an email response.
He added that there’s some evidence seawalls can accelerate erosion at adjacent properties that don’t have the structures.
And sea level rise is yet another threat to the bluffs.
Fueled by climate change, sea levels along the California coast are expected to rise up 1 foot in 20 years and 2 feet by 2050, according to a 2012 study from the National Research Council.
Down the line, a gain of 5 feet in sea level, coinciding with an exceptionally large storm, would flood more than $100 billion in oceanfront property in California, the Pacific Institute stated in a 2009 study.
To combat the multiple assaults on coastline infrastructure, cities have turned to sand replenishments.
Two region-wide nourishments dredged sand from offshore onto Encinitas’ beaches in 2001 and 2012, noted Katherine Weldon, Encinitas’ shoreline preservation manager.
Solana Beach and Encinitas are currently seeking federal approval and funding for a joint project that would replenish beaches periodically over the next 50 years.
However, nourishments also have critics. Some say the cost of the cities’ project, estimated at $55.6 million for the Encinitas portion and $61 million for Solana Beach, is just too steep. And it holds the potential to affect marine life, they argue.
“Cities across the world are facing the same problem — how do you address beaches disappearing?” Cristie said, adding that the coastal commission believes seawalls aren’t the answer.