Some 60 oceanview homes in Dana Point sit precariously on a landslide-prone bluff, but efforts to upgrade the protective boulder wall lining the beach below have been rebuffed — even as the cliff becomes increasingly vulnerable to rising seas and pounding winter waves.
The county is drawing up a third set of plans to submit to the state Coastal Commission, which rejected previous permit applications in 2012 and again last February. But it’s far from certain those plans will be approved by the commission or what recourse homeowners have if an ocean-generated landslide takes their properties.
The threat of bluff failure is hardly a new problem for these homes above Strands Beach. The first boulder wall was built there in 1969 in preparation for construction of the residential subdivision, known as Niguel Shores, according to Coastal Commission documents.
But the issue is growing more critical there and elsewhere along the California coast, as the commission becomes increasingly adamant about preserving beaches and allowing “coastal migration” to carry the ocean and sands ever farther landward. The likelihood of homes, roads and other structures being lost to the rising sea is expected to become more common, as are tensions over how to address the the conflict.
“The commission is going to be facing harder and harder decisions,” said Sean Hecht, an environmental law professor at UCLA. “It’s really going to be a struggle over time.”
After the Coastal Act took effect in 1977, construction of beachfront armoring needed the blessing of the Coastal Commission, with such approval typically granted only to protect homes built prior to the Coastal Act. But even those seeking to safeguard older properties can find it increasingly difficult to get commission approval.
After a 1977 landslide took out six undeveloped lots in the Niguel Shores community, the commission gave the greenlight to reconstruction of the armoring there. After further damage, the commission approved additional fortification in 1986, although that work was never performed. But when the county returned with a rebuilding request in 2012, it was told to go back to the drawing board and it continues to search for an acceptable proposal nearly a decade later.
In a related case up the coast, at 11 Lagunita Drive in Laguna Beach, the commission in 2018 ordered the removal of a seawall it had approved 13 years earlier. The commission made its decision after determining that a massive remodeling of the home protected by that seawall constituted new development. The homeowner plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court after the commission prevailed in lower courts. If the seawall is removed, at least part of the $25 million home is expected to be taken down as well.
“Many residences and other structures located along the coast were built at a time when current scientific and engineering knowledge were lacking, and folks thought they could build and permit structures up to — and even beyond — the high-tide line without consequence,” said Richard Frank, a UC Davis environmental law professor.
“Now we know that the effects of climate change — especially sea level rise, and more frequent and intense coastal storms — are making many of those structures vulnerable and at risk. In seismically-active coastal areas like Southern California, that risk is exacerbated even more.”
Compounded by the Coastal Commission’s growing desire to retain beaches by allowing them to migrate landward, that situation has raised the stakes of what should be done about it — and Frank points to the Strands Beach dilemma as a prime example of the growing quandary of whether or not to further armor the coast.
When it rejected the county’s permit application to expand the boulder barrier at Strands Beach in 2012, the commission cited a number of concerns about the revetment, as the structure is known in engineering parlance. Those reservations included the amount of beach that would be lost with the enlarged approach, the durability and longevity of the structure, and mitigation for the environmental damage. One specific suggestion was to include a walkway at the top of the structure to replace public access lost to boulders on the beach.
Working closely with Coastal Commission staff, the county tried to address all of those issues in the application considered by the commission last year, with plan changes including a walkway that would connect with a similar walkway immediately downcoast. That downcoast beachfront structure and path, similar to what the county was proposing below Niguel Shores, were approved by the commission in 2004.
In its report to the commission, staff planners and geologists noted that about 62 homes in Niguel Shores sat on “a massive pre-historic landslide complex.” The report said possible alternatives — including a breakwater and sand replenishment — were investigated, but concluded “the proposed revetment is the least environmentally damaging feasible alternativeto protect the existing endangered structures.”
The commission disagreed, unanimously rejecting the proposal but offering no suggestions for an alternative. Commissioners said they were concerned the structure would result in a loss of public beach to benefit wealthy homeowners at taxpayer expense.
“All of us up here have spoken about the preciousness of our beaches and our terror at their loss,” Commissioner Donne Brownsey said at the Feb. 13 meeting. “(This) is what I consider a handful of homes compared to a large number of people who recreate on that beach and enjoy nature there. The public deserves better.”
An unusual facet of the situation is that the county — not the homeowners, as is usually the case — is responsible for maintaining the bluff, the result of a legal settlement dating to the early days of Niguel Shores development. That issue concerned commissioners, with taxpayers’ price tag for the new structure estimated at $10 million for construction and another $15 million in mitigation fees to be paid to the state.
California Deputy Attorney General Jamee Patterson told the commission last February she would explore other ways to obligate the association to be a signatory to the project. But if she’s made any headway, Patterson isn’t saying so publicly.
“My advice to (the commission) is protected by attorney-client privilege,” she told the Orange County Register this month.
Meanwhile, the county is developing a proposal that “involves only repairing the existing revetment within its previously approved, existing footprint and envelope,” according to county spokeswoman Kristi Bergstrom.
She said the county was monitoring the bluff “to the extent that it relates to the condition of the revetment” and if an immediate threat of significant collapse related to the revetment is detected, the county would apply for an emergency fortification. The commission has approved such emergency permits at San Onofre State Beach and Capistrano Beach in the past four years.
The Surfrider Foundation, which opposed last year’s proposal for the Strands Beach, has called the new plan “an improvement.” And homeowners are largely on board with the county’s approach.
“The Niguel Shores Community Association remains concerned about the deteriorated state of the existing revetment and is supportive of the county’s efforts to come to an agreement with the Coastal Commission,” said association attorney Fred Gaines.
Bergstrom anticipated a commission hearing on the proposed repairs would be held in 6 months to a year. Commission spokesperson Noaki Schwartz said her agency has reviewed the proposal and “didn’t identity any major red flags.”
“However, it still needs to go before the commissioners,” Schwartz said. “This approach is meant to be an interim solution while the agencies work on a longer term response to sea level rise and bluff stability issues.”
Some experts say a bluff collapse at places like the Strands Beach may be only a matter of time, one that seawalls and boulders might, at best, forestall.
“You’re buying yourself time with armoring, but many ocean bluffs are eventually not going to hold up,” said UCLA’s Hecht. “When you’re buying above a revetment on an eroding bluff, you’re basically buying for an interim period, over the long term.”
The bluff-front homes in Niguel Shores are valued in the $7 million to $10 million range, according to Zillow.com. Typical homeowners insurance doesn’t cover damage or loss caused by landslides, according to Mark Sektnan of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, an insurance trade group.
For that, you’re going to need landslide insurance, which runs around $4 per $1,000 of coverage — or about $40,000 a year for a $10 million home, according to Money Geek’s extensive online insurance analysis. And if that landslide is caused by a flood or earthquake, you’ll probably need flood or earthquake insurance for reimbursement.
If the homes are damaged or destroyed by a landslide, it’s unclear whether the county or state could be held liable. But Hecht and veteran environmental attorney Mark Massara agreed the Coastal Commission is unlikely to lose such a lawsuit simply because it denied a permit.
Massara pointed to the courts’ support for the Coastal Commission so far in the 11 Lagunita Drive case. And while Hecht said homeowners could claim the failure to grant a permit was a “taking” of property in the event of a landslide, he called the legal strategy “a bit of a longshot.”
“The county is a different issue,” Hecht said. “The settlement is a contractural agreement and the county agreed to maintain the bluff. But then the county could argue its hands were tied by the Coastal Commission. There’s really not a clear answer.”
One thing seems fairly certain: Niguel Shores won’t be the last time you hear about the issue.
“I believe the Dana Point controversy is a harbinger of things to come, here in California and in coastal regions around the nation,” said UC Davis law professor Frank.