Unnatural erosion at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Is Point Loma Nazarene responsible?

It looks like a big vacant lot along the cliffs on the western slope of Point Loma, just below Point Loma Nazarene College, between Ladera Street and the fence marking the U.S. Navy property. There’s a dusty parking lot used mostly by surfers headed for offshore breaks called Garbage and a grove of ailing eucalyptus used mostly by boring beetles. The land beyond the parking lot is slashed by deepening ravines, the result of runoff from a curving road that bisects the property, and drainage from a grassy playing field that rests atop concrete rubble and fill dirt. Mountain bikes have left their mark everywhere: crooked tracks stretch out in the crumbling dirt like entrails. A men’s dormitory squats beside an asphalt parking lot near the southern end of the property; water from an outdoor shower in the parking lot creates another fissure as it trickles down a slope. Only the ocean view saves this plot of ground from true ugliness.

Welcome to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, the official name of the 68 acres of dedicated parkland that extends from the slopes of Point Loma to encompass Sunset Cliffs all the way north to Adair Street. The park has become the center of the latest dispute between Point Loma Nazarene College and its surrounding neighbors. Old spats over parking and traffic near the campus have been resolved with various neighborhood groups, but before the school can embark on its long-term building plans, another group of local residents is trying to force the school to help solve some of the park’s problems.

The neighbors, in the form of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Advisory Council, are trying to embargo the school’s building program until the master plan for the park is completed. The school’s conditional-use permit, which has already been granted by the city planning commission, will be discussed by the city council next Tuesday. The park advisory council will be in attendance, urging the councilmembers to come up with solutions for the erosion problems.

School officials have sent out letters to some neighbors asking for help in lobbying the mayor and city council to issue the permit. The officials argue that they inherited the erosion problems from the previous owner of the campus, Cal Western. Until 1973, the parkland was a part of the campus, but when the Nazarene college bought the property, the campus was split, and the city purchased the acreage that is now Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. The road extending down the western slope to the dormitory was already in place. Over the years, local neighbors and city parks committees have noticed a general deterioration of the park, mostly due to neglect, but much of it caused by runoff from the loop road.

Part of the road is on school property; part of it is on park property. A few years ago the school installed a drainpipe under one section of the road, funneling runoff into a natural ravine. The ravine is now a 30-foot deep culvert. The college’s letter, which begins, “Dear Friend,” states: “We believe it would be unfair for the city to expect the college to incur many thousands of dollars in costs to correct a problem which existed before the city purchased the park land and before the college purchased its property.” The letter also says the park’s master plan will be tied up for “months or years” not the two and a half months park patrons claim. In an interview, the college’s acting director of financial affairs, Hugh McNeilly, said the erosion is “a problem that’s been there since God created the world.” McNeilly claimed that the people who were asking the city to withhold the college’s conditional-use permit were holding up major building plans, which include a new parking structure that will alleviate street parking problems, a fine arts building, and the expansion of several other buildings. “They want us to pay for all those improvements down there,” McNeilly sniffs, “plus leave it alone for their use.” It’s unclear yet just what measures would be needed to stop what the park lovers refer to as “unnatural erosion,” but these measures probably would not include the unnatural-looking rip-rap — hundreds of small boulders — the school has installed in one gully.

Nancy Cottingham, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years and has become interested in returning the park to its natural state, stood near the chasm created by runoff from the road last week and remarked, “It makes me sad to see how this place has deteriorated. If the school has to take care of their erosion problems, it will be very expensive. But if they don’t, there won’t be a park. They have to address this issue.” Park planners envision a 10 or 20-year plan that would eventually bring the park back to something close to its natural condition, resembling the relatively untouched Navy land to the south. A system of footpaths will be maintained away from heavily eroded areas. The scruffy grove of eucalyptus trees, probably planted when the land was owned by the Theosophical Society in the early part of this century, would be removed.

At a community meeting in Ocean Beach Monday night, a landscape architect hired by the city presented local residents with preliminary plans for the park. After viewing drawings of the park plans that included large sections of native plants, Torrey Pines, footpaths, observation points, and controlled access to the beach, one man stood up and remarked, “The place never looked like that. I came her in ’40 and it was a dump then. It’s always been a dump!” Another man unsatisfied with the consultant’s treatment of the erosion problems caused by the school’s loop road, commented, “That gully has appeared in the last five years, during one of the worst droughts we’ve had. What happens when we get two wet years in a row?” Many in the group of about 50 residents felt that the road had to be removed and that the school’s planned expansion had to be prevented from causing more runoff into the park.

The school is seeking a 50-year permit for using the loop road that bisects the park; park patrons want to keep the permit on a year-to-year basis for now, or at least until the park master plan is completed. Issues related to the road – the dormitory (which is on school property), the dorm’s sewage pipes (which broke three years ago and started another erosion problem), and the playing field – need to be resolved in the park’s master plan. “If the college would jump on the bandwagon and help the park,: says Ann Swanson, who heads up the park advisory committee, “then the plan could move through city channels fairly quickly. The park is almost an extension of the campus. It’s an asset to the college.” If the city council decides not to withhold the conditional-use permit, it may be a long, long time before the property resembles a park.

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