Leucadia resident can’t replace stairway to sand

Coastal commission says nay to Beacons Beach homeowner

Cliff at Beacons Beach
  • Cliff at Beacons Beach
  • Image by Tim Buss/Wikipedia

A long fight by a Leucadia homeowner to try to replace a private stairway to Beacons Beach ended sharply at the California Coastal Commission Thursday, March 13, with the commission rejecting the owner's appeal.

"It is the intention that the steps be allowed to wither away," said commissioner Jana Zimmer.

The steps are made of railroad ties and come down the 85-foot bluff from Matthew Gordon's house, immediately north of Beacons. Records from the commission and City of Encinitas show that Gordon has been battling with the city and the commission since the city issued a stop-work order in 2005, citing the construction of some portion of the stairs to the beach.

For more than three years, the city and the owner battled over when the stairs were built. In its records, the city found a similar stop-work order dating back to 1990 over the same issue. The key question: are the stairs older than the city's regulations and the creation of the coastal commission?

The city fought the dating battle and decided the stairs and some wood retaining walls also built without permits had to go, and issued a permit to remove them in 2011. Then the whole thing ended up at the coastal commission, which voted in October to allow the steps to be repaired but not replaced. In doing so, the commission sidestepped a battle to carbon-date the stairs and agreed they might be old enough but that the commission's legal purpose is to assure "these nonconforming structures are supposed to be phased out," Zimmer said.

But Gordon's representative, Jon Corn, returned to the commission this week with a request, trying to get wording in the decision that would let him seek a permit to replace the railroad ties.

"A replacement of one or two railroad ties or even ten railroad ties, that would not be a new stairway," Corn explained. "It is the best protection for the environment and it best protects the safety of people walking up and down it."

Commissioners weren't onboard, however.

"Any existing ties may remain but may not be replaced," Corn was told. "Of course, nothing we're doing precludes him from applying for a permit to repair or do maintenance on the bluff face."

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Carbon date the stairs? Are they serious? Not only is is costly, it is impossible to use the information to date the staircase. That's because most railroad ties used in landscaping, soil stabilization, and yes staircases, spent many years holding up rails. The lifetime of a tie cannot be easily identified, because of differences in the rate of decomposition by species of wood and where they were used. A tie that is perpetually in damp soil will not last long, but one that is in a spot that is dry or well drained and not subject to lateral stresses can go for decades. I'd estimate that the ties could predate their use there by from twenty to sixty years. So, no two ties would date the same, and then that would not prove a thing about when they were installed there.

But just what sort of things would be included in "applying for a permit to repair or do maintenance on the bluff face?" Stucco it? Build retaining walls? Add sprinklers and ice plant? I think the idea here is that the bluff is "allowed" to erode naturally.

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