Though approved by the City of Encinitas, Surfrider and two members of the California Coastal Commission are challenging two homeowners' plans at the bluff's edge on Neptune Avenue.
While the city approved the projects that will allow developers to build 40 feet back from the edge (and will let them add features between the houses and the bluff), the challengers say the houses should be at least 96 feet from the bluffs.
"The plans don't comply with the city's Local Coastal Program, despite the planning commission approval," said Julia Chun-Heer, Surfrider San Diego's policy manager. "More importantly, it's a perpetuation of irresponsible planning, especially in light of sea-level rise and climate change."
Multiple calls and emails for comment to the City of Encinitas received no response. This reporter was unable to contact the homeowners.
The two couples planning the houses have been working on plans since 2013. Both houses will have basements and two stories, with extensive backyard features, including caissons that Chun-Heer sees as precursors to "future coastal bluff armoring."
Neptune Avenue is a narrow, one-way street that stretches north about 2.25 miles from Sylvia Street (just north of Encinitas Boulevard) to Grandview Beach, a city beach and parking lot. Houses along the west side of Neptune have unobstructed views of the beach and ocean north of Moonlight Beach.
Most all the simpler homes have been torn down and replaced with houses much like the ones that Gary and Bella Martin and Jim and Karla Lindstrom hope to build — 3100-square-foot, two-story houses with a basement and an attached two-car garage. Similar houses on Neptune sell for upwards of $3.5 million.
But it's not the disappearance of quaint homes that worries the two coastal commissioners. They see the bluffs as too unstable to build near. In 75 years, they say, the bluffs will have fallen down and people on the beach may find themselves looking at the west walls of the basements.
The solution that many bluff-top owners pursue to prevent erosion is what Chunn-Heer calls coastal armoring: installing concrete walls to keep the sand on the bluff. But that blocks the natural formation of beach, leaving the choices of adding sand by expensive pumping and dumping of offshore sand or letting the beach narrow until it's gone.
Experts in beach dynamics say that sea-level rise is going to require adding sand to buffer the land; armoring blocks the natural process, they say. The commission's geologist determined the Martin house should be set back 96.5 feet from the bluff for safety over the life of the house, according to a coastal commission report. Since the lot is 120 feet by 40 feet, it would only support a much smaller house than the one proposed. Similarly, the Lindstrom house should be 62 feet from the bluff, not the 25 feet or so that their plan is based on.
The commission's geologist calculated a rate of erosion more than three times higher than the couples' expert, according to the report.
"The city did not require the property owners to assume the current and future risks [of bluff erosion] in the form of a deed restriction and waiver of rights to future shoreline armoring," the report says. The commission requires that waiver as part of its approval.
Houses on both sides have sea walls, the report notes. The coastal commission appeal says that the two projects are part of an emerging pattern of inappropriate approvals by the city and that two other nearby projects have similar issues.
"Sooner or later, these owners will begin to ask for permission to armor the bluffs," Chunn-Heer said. "It's a matter of when and not if."