Friday, October 28, 2011

The Skinny on the OB Lawsuit Against the City of SF

by Stephanie Haughey, Save The Waves Intern

On August 9, 2011, the California Coastal Protection Network (CCPN) filed suit against the City and County of San Francisco. CCPN argued that the City violated the California Coastal Act by failing to obtain a coastal development permit for development undertaken at Ocean Beach San Francisco.

The Coastal Act requires that anyone wishing to undertake development located within the coastal zone must obtain a coastal development permit. The coastal zone is an area that generally extends inland 1,000 yards from the mean high tide line of the sea, and the Coastal Act provides a broad definition of what actions constitute “development.” Among other requirements, the permit applicant must describe the proposed development project and its intended uses, describe ecological characteristics of the proposed location, and include feasible alternatives or mitigation measures which would substantially lessen any significant adverse impacts. After reviewing the application and considering public comments, staff reports and oral presentations, the California Coastal Commission ultimately determines if the proposed development should go forward. This process ensures a careful assessment of the proposed development’s impacts on the environment.

CCPN alleged in its complaint that the City violated the Coastal Act in the following way:

  • The City failed to obtain a coastal development permit for the construction of a 600-foot-long rock revetment on Ocean Beach San Francisco between Sloat and Skyline Boulevard on or about the year 1997.
  • While the quarry revetment was supposedly temporary and put in place only under emergency conditions in response to erosion damage from El NiƱo storm events, CCPN believes the City has dumped rocks, concrete sidewalk, pavement, rebar, metal poles and other rubbish onto the beach since 1997 without permits from the Coastal Commission. The Ocean Beach-Great Highway Storm Drainage Protection Project Final Report (May 2005) supports this allegation. The report stated that the 1997 revetment, “does not meet coastal engineering design standards” and would “experience a faster rate of degradation than an engineered structure and will require maintenance….” As the erosion continued and the revetment became less effective for protecting the bluff, it would be reasonable to believe other measures were taken to protect the beach, such as continuing to dump debris, with or without the proper authorization
  • The City experimented with another strategy to curtail the effects of erosion: dredging sand from the Golden Gate shipping channel and dumping it into shallow waters on Ocean Beach from 2006 and continuing until the present without permits from the Coastal Commission. Without the necessary authorization, this action is illegal, as well as potentially destructive to marine ecosystems of Ocean Beach.
  • The City was out of compliance with several conditions attached to Emergency Permit 2-10-003-G, including the finalized length of the revetment being 15 linear feet longer than what was approved in the emergency permit (the revetment was 440 linear feet, not the approved length of 425 linear feet). Additionally, the City failed to submit a complete application for a coastal development permit by the specified deadline in 2010.

Coastal erosion is a serious concern and will only worsen as climate change increases wave intensity. However, creating a wall of rubbish and debris to deflect impending sea level rise and erosion has proven to be ineffective and costly. The Ocean Beach-Great Highway Storm Drainage Protection Project (2005) even conceded that the 1997 revetment was inadequate because erosion was observed above the revetment due to wave run-up and windblown spray. Yet, the City of San Francisco has continued to use coastal armoring as its quick fix to erosion and has ignored arguments made by environmental groups, university professors, scientists and San Francisco residents for the implementation of a managed retreat and strategic relocation approach to erosion.


Apart from its involvement in the CCPN lawsuit, the City may:

  • Apply for another emergency permit in response to erosion damage from weather-related events in the winter months. Given the uncooperative nature of the City, the Commission may be reluctant to grant an emergency permit that permits the implementation of the destructive and ineffective coastal armoring method to erosion control previously used by the City.
  • Resubmit an application for a coastal development permit for its development at Ocean Beach. The City’s preferred method of erosion control is obvious: coastal armoring. One may argue that it is unlikely that the Commission would change its mind on the issue and approve an application that is substantially the same development as the City’s previous application (rock revetment). Instead, the Commission may welcome an application that incorporates sustainable erosion control measures such as managed retreat (strategic relocation).

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