Let's Save Sunset Cliffs

When Steve Scatolini walks through Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, it becomes home. He knows the vegetation by smell, taste, and name — buckwheat, coastal sage scrub, California sunflower, ladyfinger, lemonade berry, and acacia. Scatolini has visited the area since the late 1960s.

"This has been my playground since junior high, and when you're there by the ocean, the city disappears," he says. "There's nowhere else like it; it's a magical experience.... I have seen usage go up. When I was little, there were maybe 12 surfers per spot and fishermen. Now, there can be 1000 park users daily."

The 68-acre park is characterized by eroded land formations and cliffs. Scatolini, a former chairman and secretary of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council, believes increased land use is whittling away the ecosystem while improvements remain stalled.

"City government has neglected the park and left it to erode," he says. "The usage now is at a point where they need to say, 'Let's fix it up and preserve it.' There has been a continued community consensus for a natural open-space park."

A "master plan" for Sunset Cliffs Natural Park has been in progress since the early 1980s and is currently under environmental review by the city. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council chairperson Camilla Ingram has been told that the draft environmental impact report and next draft of the master plan will probably be available for public comment in September.

"The primary emphasis of the plan is to control erosion, more than anything, and capture water from city streets and Point Loma Nazarene University and put it into a proper drainage system," Ingram says. "In 1994, the Water Quality Control Board said Sunset Cliffs was the worst erosion-control point in San Diego County. The good news is that the city planning office has been doing a good planning job with this draft of the master plan."

Some say that three areas of contention are holding up the plan's development: Point Loma Nazarene University's softball field for its women's team, beach access, and restrooms.

During the 1980s, Point Loma Nazarene University built a softball field on city land to comply with Title IX regulations for equal physical education programs and facilities for women. The city granted the school a ten-year usage permit to convert a terrace on the western hillside portion of Sunset Cliffs into a field.

Anne Swanson, former chair of the Sunset Cliffs Task Force, Sunset Cliffs Advisory Committee, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council, says the university chose not to do anything about the ballfield in the process of developing its campus.

"Within those ten years, the field seldom came to use at all," she says. "When the ten-year lease was about to expire, the college decided to redo the field. We had all this input and the college did know the community's feelings, but somehow [it] got permission from the city to go renovate the ballfield. [The school] did not buy a permit or have an environmental impact report when it [developed] the land."

The Sunset Cliffs Recreation Council and the Parks and Recreation Department's coastal area committee both approved a master plan in the 1990s, but progress was halted by the school, according to Swanson. Meanwhile, the city accorded the school some privileges, including access to a western loop road until 2017.

"There have been various city councilmembers who have been lobbied hard by the college and the Little League committee, and some of them wanted to try and compromise, but the compromise they proposed was not a healthy one or environmentally right for the park," says Swanson. "Now we have more environmentally conscious city council people, and I am hopeful that things will be going nicely now."

Swanson and others are concerned that the field -- which was created by cutting into the hillside, building a flat bluff, and filling it up -- has accelerated Sunset Cliffs' erosion, cliff retreat, and block fall problems (which occur when a cliff face shears away). Scatolini adds that irrigation runoff has made the field an irregular shape.

"Water from piping has seeped into the bluff," he says. "East of the park, there's a canyon where a culvert was made to divert water that flowed from the university above. The natural course of the water was to go onto the field, and in 1988, I used to step across this culvert. Now, the canyon has been made wide by up-slope runoff channeled into one place. The canyon's a problem too, because homeless kids go there, and people have parties in it and leave trash. There are two big holes south of the field due to piping, a mud puddle in the field from irrigation, and slumping of the fence along the perimeter. On the north end, asphalt from roads, concrete, and rebar are dumped, and pilings are sticking out of the ground. The city constructed a sludge line west of the park. A crack from that goes up to the Young Hall [dormitory] parking lot."

According to Scatolini, surrounding areas have been impacted as well.

"In the old days, I would meet friends at 'the log,' " he says, motioning to a jutting piece of wood a few feet away from the Young Hall parking lot. "Now it's in midair due to runoff from hard surfaces. This was flat ground 15 to 20 years ago."

PLNU director of development Joe Watkins disagrees.

"I understand that San Diego Parks and Recreation is negotiating with a consultant to conduct a study of the erosion issue as part of the park master-planning process," he says. "The university will be interested in the results of the study and the recommendations of the consultant. Our view is that there is conflicting interpretations of the data. Obviously, we disagree with the contention that the field contributes to erosion."

Some argue that the ballfield's location divides the hillside portion of Sunset Cliffs and interrupts the park's natural character.

"If you were planning a park and you needed a ballfield to accommodate the neighborhood, you would not put it in such a remote location," Swanson says. "The truth is that in the peninsula area [Ocean Beach and Point Loma] we have a total of 21 ballfields, not including [the university's]. It's a matter of using our resources really well, and hopefully not having a field on the coastal terrace impacting the cliffs. The real deficiency in the peninsula is space for open-space, passive-use parks."

Swanson suggests that the city add lighting to existing ballfields to extend use and that games be scheduled better if more ball-playing time is needed. Yet, she says, "It's not a matter of the city accommodating the college's needs; it's the college taking care of its own needs."

The university has two large fields: the men's baseball field and the track. Scatolini and Swanson believe that the women's softball field does not meet standard regulation size and should be moved to either of the two upper and larger fields. The current master plan calls for removal of fencing, backstops, and athletic infrastructure from the green space and restoration of the field to its natural state to unify the park.

"It is my understanding that after the master plan is complete and approved, city Parks and Recreation will determine in cooperation with the park council the best resolution for the green space," Watkins says. "Meanwhile, we're actively looking at all options for meeting the needs of our women's softball team. In fact, we're [at] the moment checking all the 20 or so fields on the point for potential alternatives."

A court decision in the late 1980s requires the university to pay $90,000 to the city whenever the master plan is completed and approved. Watkins says these funds are available and have been.

At a height of at least 50 feet in most places, Sunset Cliffs -- composed of eroding sandstone and shale -- do not allow easy or safe access to the beaches and surf. Rock falls occur during the summer and winter, and only agile park users, surfers, and strong swimmers climb or walk down the slopes. The master plan recommends refurbishment and maintenance of the Ladera Street stairway and construction of new stairs at Garbage Beach, which would be accessed from the lower parking lot.

The city closed the Ladera stairs because handrails on the bottom flight rusted and fell off but determined that replacing them would require taking off two of the flights. Scatolini says public usage continues despite a chain and sign intended to deter access.

"The foot treads are treacherous, yet when I went to the stairs, I saw over 100 people go up and down those stairs, ignoring that they were closed," he says.

The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Recreation Council believes adding access points in locations other than the Ladera Street stairway will result in injuries and deaths.

"We're very concerned right now that park planners have put in a second stairway not even 200 yards from a new stairway that is being built," recreation council chairperson Ingram says, referring to the stairway to Garbage Beach. "If you're going to put in access, wouldn't it be better to put it in an area where access would serve the public best? That site would lead people to come down to a new surface beach that is submerged."

The recreation council also fears that the parking lot and pocket beach's isolated locations may increase gang activity and underage drinking and drug use. A permanent public restroom and beach shower near the lower parking lot have been recommended in the master plan, yet also pose similar safety concerns.

"Issues of vandalism, vagrancy, and sex crimes along with increased gang activity bring great concern to the community," Scatolini says. "Permanent facilities are usually locked to prevent some of these problems, and the public is then denied access to the facilities, thereby negating their usefulness.... Digging in sewer and water lines through the soft sandstone [for permanent restrooms in] the park is an issue, as this would disturb fragile native habitat and exacerbate erosion problems."

Ingram supports the addition of portable facilities instead of permanent restrooms, arguing that the former lend themselves to the natural park and are unobtrusive. "The Porta Pottis, if not attractive, are effective because they don't provide places for drug deals or sexual perverts," she says.

Craig Castaneda, a policy adviser to District Two councilmember Michael Zucchet, says Zucchet "is very aware of the issues and oppositions and how they attribute to crime, drainage, and plumbing and does not feel there is a need for the permanent [restrooms] at this time." As for the other areas of contention, Castaneda says Zucchet supports the removal of the ballfield and has not yet formulated a position on beach access.

Castaneda is eager for the master plan to come before the council by the end of the year. "So much focus has been placed on these three items that the committee has lost focus in a lot of discussions," he says. "The focus of attention should be on erosion. Whether [Zucchet] is trying to work with the recreation council, Parks and Recreation, or the [land and housing] committee, he wants to mitigate erosion along the linear and hillside portion [of Sunset Cliffs]."

The Sunset Cliffs Recreation Council and coastal area committee of the Park and Recreation Board have approved the master plan conditionally. However, before it comes before the city council for final approval, the public must respond to the city's environmental impact report, the city's design review committee needs to evaluate whether there are any design flaws, and the plan must be approved by the Park and Recreation Board. Anne Swanson predicts that the California Coastal Commission will want to contribute an opinion as well.

In the meantime, Steve Scatolini waits and worries.

"Although this ballfield comprises part of the park, everyone thinks of their own use for the park," he says. "I, I, I, I. Everybody is worried about themselves. I'm worried about this living land. There are not many living places left that are publicly owned that we can give to the future. It's worth passing it on intact and preserving it intact."

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