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Surfers versus Oceanside Harbor

Shifting sands

There's a classic confrontation in Oceanside these days that should be interesting to watch in the months to come. It involves the city council, Camp Pendleton, the Western Surfing Association, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Oceanside Boaters Association, various landowners, businessmen, environmentalists, and several other private organizations and government agencies.

Oceanside today is a city on the move. They're hustling. They're tired of being a grimy little beach town next to the marine base, more famous for their prostitution, porno joints, grubby pool halls, tattoo parlors, and bus stations, than for their popular harbor and white beaches. And they want to do something about it. In cooperation with the marine corps, they've been able to ease some of the problems. The base now staggers its paychecks so all their men don't go on liberty at the same time; they've set up satellite bus stations which they hope will relieve the congestion in the tenderloin district; they've established special crime unit; and most importantly, they've organized what they call the Oceanside Economic Development Department whose job it is to attract light industry and tourist-related investment to the city. And apparently it isn't all talk. Last spring the city council established a surcharge on license fees for businesses in the downtown area to help pay for all this, which prompted squeals of protests from small businessmen who say they're being driven out to make room for the big investor.

Then some time ago the city decided it would be nice to expand the congested Oceanside harbor to make room for more boats. Visions of Newport Beach, or something. They had a good thing going with the harbor; people were coming from all over to use it (in fact 75 percent of the boats there are registered by out-of-towners), and if they could double its size they would have twice as much of a good thing. The money was set aside by the U.S. Congress ten years ago authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to study the harbor and come up with a plan. And now they think they have it.

Actually the engineers came up with three plans, but two of them were obviously less desirable, leaving just the one being seriously considered. The essence of the plan is this: they propose to double the size of the harbor by constructing a jetty into the ocean on the south side, and then at right angles to that, a submerged breakwater extending over to the existing harbor. The entrance between them will be protected by another offshore breakwater. The project, if approved, would cost at least $24 million, funded half-and-half by the federal government and the city of Oceanside, and wouldn't even begin until 1983.

Opposition to the plan is considerable among environmentalists — Coast Watch, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society — who fear beach erosion to the south, destruction of marine organisms, and water pollution in the enclosed area. But the most vocal of the opposing groups is the Western Surfing Association. They say the harbor wild destroy one of the last surfing spots in Oceanside. They feel that waves are a natural resource and should be protected. As one member of the WSA put it at a recent city council meeting, "You're removing the most dependable and accessible surfing spot in Oceanside, used by hundreds of surfers from all over ... and I think it's unacceptable." He said that surfers from as far away as Mojave have written the WSA saying they're concerned and want to know what they can do.

One after another the surfers who packed the council chamber stood up to voice their objections to the harbor. One young surfer, obviously nervous but still game, said, "I don't know how the council works but..." and then went on to explain his feeling that all the surfing in Oceanside had been eliminated little by little until now only this spot remained, and the only people to benefit by expanding the harbor are yacht owners, landowners, and businessmen whose property will increase in value.

Another young surfer said that while it was true that the present harbor was full, on any weekend only a small number of boats gets used. "Somebody from L.A. buys a boat, puts it in the harbor, and it sits there. I've seen boats sink right in the slip because nobody ever used them." He suggested they pass a law saying that everyone who owned a boat had to use it.

There were other surfers — a lawyer, a shop owner, a school teacher — but it was the young surfers, some no older than 15 or 16, who surprised everybody at the meeting with their gutsy and humorous complaints.

Oddly enough, the Army Corps of Engineers sympathized with the surfers, and assured them they would do everything possible to create equivalent surfing conditions outside the harbor. But the surfers just laughed at this, and the engineers' spokesman granted them that other attempts to do this, mostly in Hawaii, hadn't been very successful and were much too costly. But as a true engineer, he left the impression that he'd sure like to try.

A few old-time surfers, most notably ex-mayor Richardson, recalled surfing around Oceanside in the 30s, when they rode solid boards that weighed 125 pounds. "We liked to stick close to the pier where everybody could watch us." he claimed that construction of the present harbor destroyed one of their best beaches then, but created another beach farther south. Others recalled the same.

This rather strange phenomenon is caused by the prevailing current which runs from north to south along the coast. If a beach is created by the current depositing sand along the shore, and then is blocked by a man-made configuration such as a jetty, supposedly the current will deposit the same sand farther down the line. But nobody is willing to guarantee it.

Of course the boaters are all for the proposed harbor expansion. They have nothing against the surfers — many of them surf themselves, or are ex-surfers who switched to boating in their later years — but they say surfing is a "one-on-one" sport, while boating involves the entire family. A member of the Oceanside Boaters Association claimed before the council that boating all but saved his family from disintegration, and that the reference to "yachts" by the surfers is irrelevant because, "...we have a beer harbor here, not a champagne harbor. I lease my boat from the Bank of America. My wife and I both work and it'll be a long time before we pay for it."

A surfing wife assured the council that surfing was a family sport too.

But it was another boater, a young woman, who went right for the jugular, making the council visibly cringe. "Let's admit it, we're a depressed area here. We need this harbor."

The city council appointed a Coastal Projects Committee to study the matter and come up with a consensus plan. But even this angered the surfers when they discovered there was only one position on the committee to represent surfers, while the others were city councilmen, businessmen, county representatives, and the like.

To the frustration of everyone involved, though, the final decision may not be made by any committee, but by at least two uncontrollable factors first, and Oceanside beach erosion study, which is in progress, must be completed. Nobody knows yet what the expansion of the harbor will do to the beaches farther down the coast, and even the most enthusiastic supporters of the plan admit that there's nothing to be gained by a new harbor if they lose all their beaches. Uncertainty about this is the greatest single problem right now.

Secondly, the Army Corps of Engineers has to do a hydraulic model study, that is, construct a scale model of the whole thing to see if the design is even feasible. This project alone will take over a year and cost $250,000.

Then, just when it all seems so hopelessly complicated, impossible to resolve by the city council or the Army Corps of Engineers with their combined, insatiable desire to build, there is one more complication. Somebody wants to know why they don't expand the harbor to the north instead of south, and thereby satisfy everyone involved. Almost.

To the north of the Oceanside harbor is the Marine Corps harbor. The two share a common, rather large, turning basin which would be ideal for expanding the harbor because it is already protected by a breakwater. But the Marines have insisted repeatedly, "No, you can't have it, we have plans for it." Their future plans are for the docking of a large ship called the 1100 EST. They say it's so big that if the turning basin were restricted in any way, they couldn't get it in.

But the mayor of Oceanside, Paul Statham, happens to be the ex-commander of Camp Pendleton, and he says the EST is indeed a large ship, but that, "we're not talking about an outdated model, it's a modern ship, but with turning screws on the bow which make it capable of turning its own length." No, there shouldn't be any problem getting it in and out of the turning basin.

Furthermore, the basin doesn't belong to the Marines at all, but to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and while they do have a standing agreement, it seems ironic that the Marines deny the public right to public land, particularly when you consider that the rowdy stigma which Oceanside is trying to shake off can be traced directly to the adjacent presence of Camp Pendleton.

The city council and the Army Corps of Engineers say they'll go back and ask the Marines one more time.

In the meantime, nobody knows what's going to happen. But this much is clear: the City of Oceanside wants its harbor, they wouldn't have gotten this far unless somebody with the power hadn't said so loudly and forcefully. And the environmentalists, especially the surfers, don't want the harbor. That leaves a lot of people in between, perhaps most people in between. There's only one way the city can pay for their plans, and that's by floating a bond, which must be approved by the voters.

Sooner or later, it looks like everybody will get their say.

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