Sunset Cliffs crumbling slowly into the ocean

Ocean Beach Planning Board supports adding rocks at the base

King Canute, the presumptuous monarch who ordered the tide not to roll in, would get a chuckle from a stroll down the length of Sunset Cliffs. For a graphic history of man’s attempts to stop the cliffs from tumbling down, he could start by walking south from the Ocean Beach pier. He’d soon spot some of the caves the city has tried to prevent people from entering – first, they were soaked with crude oil, then later filled with bright orange concrete. And he could see where the caves have eroded and disgorged the plugs as ugly rubble. A bit further, he could note where the fences were put up to prevent people from climbing on the cliffs, and he could see the holes where the climbers cut right through. For twenty years, erosion control efforts at the scenic bluffs have been crumbling like sand castles. The king might smile to think that yet another chapter in the saga is about to unfold.

Concern about erosion of sunset cliffs goes back more than twenty years, to the 1950s, when the residents along the bluff top first began complaining about their shrinking properties. By the end of that decade, the city was asking for help from the state and federal governments. The Army Corps of Engineers charged in and developed an elaborate plan for erosion control, which included the building of a large beach and a 4000-car parking lot at the foot of the cliffs between Santa Cruz and Adair streets. Congress in 1966 even authorized about $800,000 to pay for part of the scheme. But intense resistance to the plan from many Point Loma residents bogged down the project and only a small part of it was undertaken in 1971. Public concern of the cliffs then subsided completely for a while, but in 1974 the deaths of four sailors in cliff collapses revived the issue.

In May of that year, the city council directed the city manager to “analyze various alternative permanent solutions” to the Sunset Cliffs erosion problems. Two and a half years later, the city engineering department proffered a fistful of plans, ranging from leaving the cliffs alone to constructing elaborate protective measures. Once again, a heated public debate ensued, but in October of 1978, the city council approved the idea of building a rock “revetment” (the placement of rocks parallel to the cliff base) from Santa Cruz Avenue down to Osprey Street. It also called for some (undefined) program to “stabilize” the upper cliffs. To figure out how to do that, the city hired Woodward-Clyde Consultants, soils engineers. Now, $30,000 and two years later, their report is complete.

Few copies of that document have yet been distributed in the community, but its contents promise to rekindle another debate. In summary, the report recommends a variety of measures for the different sections of the cliff, some of them minor, like landscaping. The net effect of all the recommendations, however, would be to alter drastically the appearance of the cliffs. One substantial change in the cliffs just south of the OB pier, for example, would be to install an eight-foot-high “splash wall” where currently there’s nothing but rock. The report also calls for building a reinforced concrete walkway, complete with metal handrails, around Crawfish Cove (at the foot of Santa Cruz), which adventurous cliff climbers must now negotiate by clinging to a rock face. Perhaps the most dramatic recommendations apply to the section where the erosion has been the worst – te almost vertical cliff face at the end of Del Monte Avenue, where a half a dozen homes teeter on the brink (one structure actually had to be removed last year). In front of those cliffs, Woodward-Clyde recommends the building of two sections of wall forty feet tall, with dirt fill to be added in back of the wall face. Such an addition would not only save the homes, according to the report, but would furthermore give the property owners up to forty feet of new back yard.

The environmental effect such drastic changes is one of the major points likely to spark criticism. Two years ago the Ocean Beach Planning Board supported the idea of adding rocks to the cliff base but opposed the idea of stabilizing the upper cliffs – primarily because of the fear of the environmental damage likely to result. Tom Kozden, a former planning board member who has consistently opposed any erosion control measures at the cliffs argues, “To despoil totally the natural environment in order to save ten to twenty houses is just the wrong priorities.”

Closely related to the environmental consequences of any erosion control are questions of public access. Bill Barnes, the head of the city’s engineering department, readily admits that the Woodward-Clyde report has been designed with the idea of keeping people off the cliff face entirely; climbing on the cliffs unquestionably helps to break them down. But Barnes argues that the proposed erosion-control measures would substitute an “improved” access to the cliff area; instead of climbing on the bluff face, people will be able to walk easily along the foot of the cliffs, he says. “During the summer months, we should have a pretty good linkage between those two parks (Ocean Beach Park on the north and Spalding Park on the south), which we’ve never had before.”

But, retorts Ocean Beach resident Jackie Sanders, “There’s a difference in where you’d be able to walk and what the view would be. If you go with all these recommendations, you’re not going to have the natural cliff effect; instead, it will be like Sea World on a guided tour. I think there’s a question of more than just quantity of access; I think it’s also quality of access.” He suggests, “One big reason people go to the cliffs is not to walk on concrete trails. They go to the cliffs to get dirty: to live a bit dangerously.”

He and other observers also question whether it’s possible – let alone advisable – to keep people off the cliff face. Barnes says studies show that if you provide good access where you want people to travel and put in plants and barriers where you don’t want them to go, then you can successfully direct foot traffic. But Sanders and others like Dick Ridenour argue that the cliffs are the exception to that rule. Ridenour has lived two blocks away from the cliffs for more than twenty years, and led the battle to oppose the Army engineers plan for adding the beach back in the mid-Sixties. “People will go up the cliffs. If you try putting in plants, they’ll walk right over them. The city tried planting full-grown ice plant at the end of Niagara and they even covered it with burlap to protect it, and people still walked right over it.”

Ridenour is among those who contend that the cliffs should be allowed to erode. “If you build in Mission Valley and the flood comes down, why should the taxpayers’ money fix it up? I think if you build on the cliffs, it’s the same thing… The property have kept this alive all along. If they were going to pay the full cost, then I might think differently about it. But they’re asking the rest of us to subsidize them.” In fact, the Woodward-Clyde report estimates that the total project should cost $2.2 million, with the property owners paying about a third of that cost.

The plan calls for them to pay in proportion to the work proposed for their site, a plan which still would result in some whopping assessments. The owner of the peeling wooden structure at 1615 Ocean Front Boulevard, for example, would be assessed $30,000; the owners of the five-unit condo complex at 1627 Ocean Front would pay $31,848. Nonetheless, Barnes says a preliminary survey of the property owners living directly on the cliff edge (the ones who would pay special assessments) indicates very strong support for the Woodward-Clyde plan. “I don’t need to go into hock anymore,” says Jay Kahn, the owner of the structure at 1701 Ocean Front Boulevard. “But it’s something that you have to do. It’s either that, or pack up and go away.” Mary Snell, a realtor whose assessment would be just $520, says, “When people have lived here as long as they have, they want to stay at any cost.” Snell rejects the explanation that the current proposals unfairly subsidize one small group. “To say that would just be like me saying that University Avenue shouldn’t be improved because I don’t drive down University Avenue.”

Considering the willingness of the cliff dwellers to pay their shares, the plan is much more likely to run into trouble getting the necessary money from the state ($1.1 million) and city ($430,000). Although the city already raised some of the money (it collected about $200,000 for the project during a bond issue in 1966), the rest has not yet been earmarked. Barnes says the passage of Jarvis II would likely jeopardize both state and local funds. “It would probably throw the entire project into question,” he states. But rather than wait for that fateful day in June, Barnes says his department plans to start taking the Woodward-Clyde recommendations through the necessary channels, beginning with a presentation to the Ocean Beach Planning Board in early May. He says strong resistance to the plan there also could portend an end at last to the twenty-year saga.

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