A sign about proposed development of the bluff at Thornton State Beach in Daly City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Retreat center proposed at popular state beach

Daly City residents oppose construction on ocean bluffs

Phillip Seitzer, a Daly City resident, discovered a new favorite recreational spot just south of Fort Funston while looking for places to walk his dog during the pandemic. But in November, he noticed a sign in all caps calling for a halt to development of the bluffs atop Thornton State Beach.

The scenic bluffs are prone to wind and erosion that render the sandy cliffs unstable and dangerous, as signs warn. But the area’s trails are still frequented by Daly City and San Francisco hikers, their dogs, and horses from the Mar Vista Stables.

It is on a privately-owned 4.27-acre site, just west of Highway 35 between the equestrian stables and the Thornton parking lot on which the Palo Alto-based Sand Hill Property Company is proposing to build a two-story religious retreat center.

Trees along the bluff at Thornton State Beach in Daly City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The proposal, which is still in the early stages, has drawn immediate opposition in Daly City. More than 9,500 people have signed a Change.org petition to preserve the area as open, recreational space.

“What really struck me, the more I dug in, was I got the sense that this place is a sort of treasured place in the community,” Seitzer said. “Every single person I talked to, they were surprised and almost universally opposed to this development. This wasn’t a case that I could see where the government asked what its citizens want.”

Before seeking approval for the project, the developer must first conduct a study to determine geotechnical hazards. After numerous public comments against the application, the Daly City Council on Dec. 14 approved that study.

People play fetch with their dogs in the bluff at Thornton State Beach in Daly City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But Seitzer has appealed the geological permit application to the California Coastal Commission, on the grounds that the test is invasive to habitat protections, disruptive, and could trigger a landslide. The appeal also argued that the study is inconsistent with Daly City’s land use laws and seeks to refute the granted California Environmental Quality Act exemption. The appeal is scheduled to be heard at the California Coastal Commission meeting on March 12.

The early appeal came as a surprise to Steve Lynch, director of planning and entitlements at Sand Hill Property Company. Lynch sees a real need for a Christian retreat center, which would not be run by a specific local church, and would also be rented out for weddings and other private events. He said the project would make the beach more accessible by including an easement for the public.

“This is only the grading permit that allows us to do our geological study…which will determine if it’s safe to build,” Lynch said. “They want to continue the use of that space for their own private recreation, we want to open the property up for everyone’s enjoyment. I do find it interesting that the land would be unsafe for our use, and it would be safe for the horse stables.”

People ride their horses up the bluff near Mar Vista Stables at Thornton State Beach in Daly City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Coastal Commission staff members have recommended that the commission reject the appeal and decline to take jurisdiction over the project application, although they did find that nesting birds onsite could potentially be impacted by the study. Sensitive habitats have been found adjacent to the property but none have special status.

“Currently available evidence does not suggest that habitat on-site constitutes an environmentally sensitive habitat area,” the coastal planner report wrote. “Staff (including the commission’s staff geologist) does not believe that the temporary exploration work will lead to site instability.”

Should the Coastal Commission agree, the project would remain under Daly City’s jurisdiction. Regardless, residents hope to defeat the development, like they have other abandoned projects in the area over the years.

“That whole area from Fort Funston has become this mecca,” said Annie Ellicott, one of the main organizers against the effort, who lives in San Francisco. “Considering how close it is to Daly City and San Francisco, it’s pretty unique. [Residents] just sort of take for granted that it will always be here.”


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