An environmental advocacy group spawned by the Santa Barbara oil spill is taking San Francisco to court, contending that the city for almost 15 years has illegally dumped rocks, cement shards and other debris – even iron – along thousands of feet of ocean front to block erosion.
The lawsuit filed by the California Coastal Protection Network says the city pushed the debris onto the water’s edge without permission from the California Coastal Commission. In July, the commission unanimously voted to reject San Francisco’s request to continue the practice.
In one respect, that July 12 decision was unusual – the 12-member panel and San Francisco rarely are at loggerheads. It also was unusual because the commission rejected the recommendations of its own staff, who said the commission should continue negotiations with the city over the issue.
“All this came to a head when the city came to the Coastal Commission after all these years and asked to be allowed to leave the debris in place,” said Mark Massara, an environmental attorney and coastal protections advocate who is taking a lead role in the lawsuit. “The Coastal Commission blew its top, said it was unacceptable, and unanimously denied the application.”
At issue is a stretch of Ocean Beach between Sloat Boulevard and Skyline Boulevard along the Great Highway, not far from the San Francisco Zoo. In earlier years, the debris zone covered several hundred feet. By some estimates, it is up to about 3,000 feet long along the water’s edge. A Coastal Commission staff analysis completed in June identified about 1,500 feet of dumping.
The issue reflects a potential tangle of government jurisdictions. Aside from local bodies, the agencies include the National Park Service, the State Lands Commission, State Water Quality Control Board; the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U. S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and, last but not least, the California Coastal Commission.
But amid the labyrinth of government jurisdictions and some local permitting, the project has continued largely uncontrolled. And there is no indication that any of the agencies ever intervened in the issue, or sanctioned or penalized the city in connection with the project.
The city did not comment on the specifics of the suit.
“We’re still evaluating the lawsuit and think it would be premature to comment until we file our formal pleading in September,” said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. The city’s response would be submitted to the court by Sept. 12, he added.
There are potential political implications – both immediate and long-term – in the suit as well, since a mayoral election is coming this fall and the candidates include several city officials, including incumbent Mayor Edwin Lee, a former city administrator; Herrera, who has a national reputation as an advocate for same-sex rights, and supervisors. Lee took over after former Mayor Gavin Newsom became lieutenant governor; Newsom is a likely candidate for governor in 2014.
Any fallout over the years of dumping could wind up being an issue in the mayoral contest since it covers several administrations. Moreover, critics of the erosion project say San Francisco has been given a free pass for years, while other coastal cities facing similar issues have come up with solutions. “The Coastal Commission has had a hands-off policy with respect to San Francisco,” Massara said.
San Francisco’s Department of Public Works noted the project is part of a series of protection programs authorized in 1979 – including approval from the Coastal Commission – involving soil erosion, an ocean outfall, the Lake Merced Tunnel, among others.
The efficacy of using rocks and cement debris – known as “riprap” – to curb beach erosion is disputed.
“From our perspective, we look at the ecological problem. By using riprap boulders they can destroy the beach. Beaches have life in them, they are not bare sand,” said the Sierra Club’s Lesli Daniel, who specializes in coastal habitats. “Erosion is natural on the coast. When you put up this ‘hard armor’ you can clearly see where the beach starts eroding and you lose your back beach.”
San Francisco’s Department of Public Works began dumping the debris in 1997, placing some 600 feet of quarry-stone rock and obtaining authorization after the job was finished, according to a Coastal Commission staff report. Later dumping did receive retroactive authorization through an emergency permit, although the permit’s terms ultimately were violated, Massara noted.
The goal was to prevent erosion and protect the roadway. Erosion protection became an even more acute issue over the years, intensifying during wet winters.
The commission staff, which said San Francisco’s anti-erosion project was “consistent with shoreline protection and public access policies of the Coastal Act,” recommended that the commission approve a five-year extension for San Francisco to continue the dumping and “to develop a long-term permanent solution to erosion at Ocean Beach.”
“It does encroach onto the beach and prevent further erosion. There are existing structures in danger of erosion here, including the Great Highway itself,” the staff noted. The road was closed after extensive damage from the 2009-10 storm season.
The suit contends that local laws were violated, as well as those of the Coastal Commission, which has land-use authority and jurisdiction over environmental compliance along more than 1,000 miles of coast.
The lawsuit wants the debris cleared and hopes to set up a fund through which restoration projects could be financed. Theoretically, at least millions of dollars of fines could be levied in the event the California Coastal Protection Network prevails. But environmentalists would rather create the fund that would be administered by the commission, similar to an arrangement at Fiesta Island in San Diego.