Rock walls on Ocean Beach may cost city thousands in fines

The California Coastal Commission has threatened to slap The City with fines of thousands of dollars a day unless officials address the illegitimate way they’ve handled erosion along Ocean Beach for more than a decade.

For 13 years, The City has dumped tons of rocks along a half-mile stretch of shoreline at Ocean Beach to prevent the destruction of cliffs along San Francisco’s western edge, which periodically erode during heavy storms. City officials say the rock walls protect the public and nearby infrastructure, but critics say the rock walls make beach access difficult and destroy wildlife habitat for threatened birds.

Through the years, the Coastal Commission has demanded that The City obtain approvals for dumping the rocks along the shore.

The City’s violations date to 1997, when it built a 600-foot rock wall on National Park Service land that they never received a permit for, according to a March letter from the Coastal Commission.

The most recent violation was of an emergency permit The City received in February to build a 425-foot rock wall along the seashore, which it said had eroded to the point that the Great Highway and a large sewage line were threatened. The commission approved the permit, but then The City built a much larger wall than they had a permit for, according to correspondence between the Coastal Commission and The City.

Dean LaTourrette, executive director of Save the Waves, said the violations show Department of Public Works officials tend to “just want this problem to go away,” taking environmentally damaging measures to stave off the problem in the short term but never finding a long-term solution.

 “The way DPW has approached this whole thing has been to basically do what they want … and not bring others into the conversation — or even in a lot of cases consult the commission,” he said. This fall, The City sought another permit to build yet another rock wall along the shore, but Coastal Commission officials demanded a response to earlier violations before addressing the current request.

When that response did not come by the mid-November deadline, the commission’s enforcement officer wrote a letter to Frank Filice, project manager for Department of Public Works, insisting on a response, and explained The City could be liable for fines as much as $15,000 per day per violation if it failed to act by Nov. 29.

On the day of the deadline, the Department of Public Works provided a response to the letter, though much of that response simply stated that the documents requested could not be found. The commission  has yet to impose any fines.

In an e-mailed statement, Public Works Deputy Director for Engineering Fuad Sweiss defended the agency’s actions, saying his agency was working with the Coastal Commission and National Park Service to devise a long-term solution.

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a member of the Coastal Commission, said he and other board members and agency employees are now looking very skeptically at The City’s latest request for a permit.

“My guess is the problem [with prior violations] will be factored in when they review the new project,” he said.

“The fact is The City does talk a good game in terms of advancing its green laurels, but it’s just not dealing with these issues of inevitability. … Denial is a good word for it.”

A history of violations

Armor stone:  In fall 1997, the San Francisco Department of Public Works placed two rows of armor stone at the toe of the bluff at Ocean Beach without a permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Unpermitted rocks: In the 1997-1998 rainy season, Public Works installed a 500-foot-long rock revetment at Ocean Beach. Though DPW later applied for an after-the-fact authorization, it never completed the application despite requests from the commission in 1998, 2000, 2007 and 2010.

Beach and bluff posts:
In March 2001, the commission agreed to allow Public Works to build 11 beach posts for monitoring the bluff erosions. The permit expired in December 2004, at which time Public Works was required to renew the permit or remove the posts. They have done neither.

Expandable wall: In February 2010, the commission approved an emergency rock revetment, but The City built it much larger than the permit allowed. Instead of a 425-foot length, it had a 440-foot length. Instead of a 6-foot width at the top and a 55-foot width at the bottom, it stretched in places to a 20-foot width at the top and a 72-foot width at the bottom. Instead of a 28-foot elevation, it was built at a 30-foot elevation.

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