Even when the early winter tide recedes hours after high tide, waves lap the beach only 20 paces from the outermost defenses of the Ocean Harbor House on Del Monte Beach in Monterey. That’s on a calm day. When the ocean storms, waves batter the rocks stacked against the condominium complex, built jutting out over dunes. The outermost units loom over the beach atop massive caissons, over a narrow strip of beach that gets thinner each year.
Following a recent decision by the California Coastal Commission, and with a nod from the Monterey City Council, the beach in front of the Ocean Harbor House (OHH) condos could soon see a 585-foot, $7 million reinforced concrete seawall that may well protect the property of those who live on the outer edge of the complex, but will also create a whole new set of problems.
The condos were built in the late 1960s and early ‘70s—before the institution of the Coastal Act—thus allowing certain exemptions. The Coastal Commission staff had urged the property owners to find a long-term solution beyond its current measures, such as “rip-rapping” with boulders, which is allowed under emergency permits.
While environmental groups laud the commission’s Oct. 14 demand that the property owners pay a $5.3 million mitigation fee, earmarked for the purchase of oceanfront property elsewhere in Monterey County, they point out that there will be other long-lasting costs. (It’s not yet clear if the property owners will contest the ruling in court. Attorney Dave Larsen did not respond by press time.)
The seawall would eventually cut off public access to a popular public beach—forcing beach strollers and runners to walk up a dune, through a private parking lot and around the wall to get back down the beach. And according to one local oceanographer, the seawall would, in fact, exacerbate erosion.
Every two weeks, Dr. Ed Thornton takes an all-terrain vehicle from the municipal wharf in Monterey all the way down Del Monte Beach past Seaside and Sand City, as far north as the Salinas River. Thornton is an oceanography professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and his regular jaunts down the beach are part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to measure beach erosion. </>
But you don’t have to be a scientist to see the ocean’s steady appetite, as parts of the dune that had been hardened by man, such as the former Stilwell Hall site and the end of Tioga Avenue in Sand City, literally crumble into the advancing sea.
“The problem is historic,” Thornton says.
At one point, 18,000 years ago, according to Thornton, the beach in Monterey Bay was seven miles offshore. Nature’s cycles have advanced the bay shoreline to its inward-facing crescent shape.
“Sixty years of data show that the beach is eroding at one to two feet per year at that [Ocean Harbor House] location,” he says. “If you build a seawall (which is called hardening the shoreline), the beach will erode past the structure, forming a peninsula—and the structure will be stuck out in the water.”
Thornton says he was approached by the OHH property owners association to be a consultant on the project. He’s also president of the Monterey Dunes Coalition, which includes membership from the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. Instead, he advocated against the project.
Thornton’s opposed not only because the seawall will change the immediate environment; he says he also believes that public access should not be impeded.
“What you lose is access to the beach, so you have to ask, what’s the beach worth?” he says. “What’s it worth to the community?”
For Mark Massara, coastal program manager for the Sierra Club, the $5.3 million mitigation fee is a step in the right direction, but not a solution.
“It’s a tragedy,” Massara says. “Without a doubt, this is the most inappropriately sited residential development along the coast anywhere in California.”
At an Oct. 14 hearing in San Diego, Massara and a representative from the Surfrider Foundation lobbied the Commission for what’s called a “managed retreat.” Under that regimen, the outermost condominium units would be bought out and removed from the dunes, obviating the need to armor them.
“There’s no question Del Monte Beach is one of the most important sand dune environments in California and deserves better treatment from the Coastal Commission,” he says. “These front condos should be moved back and everyone knows it. There’s just not the political will to do it.”
Should the plan proceed on course, it’s possible that seawall construction will begin this summer, Massara says. If construction does begin, a permit will be needed from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which has jurisdiction for activity up to the mean high water mark, according to spokesperson Rachel Saunders.
In June, the Sanctuary wrote a letter to the Coastal Commission opposing the project. Echoing Massara’s call for a managed retreat off the beach, Saunders says the seawall was not the right choice.
“We appreciate that it’s a hard decision because it’s a choice between private property and public access, but we maintain that there are other alternatives that should have been considered.”
Ironically, the expected erosion that will raise the high water mark means that if a seawall is built, it will eventually be in Sanctuary jurisdiction, even though the Sanctuary opposes the project.
“Eventually, you will not be able to continuously walk down the beach,” Saunders says. “Once it’s lost, it’s lost.”
Monterey County Supervisor and Coastal Commissioner Dave Potter says he’s against seawalls, but he did vote for this project. (The Commission, bound by state law to protect an existing structure “in danger,” voted 8 to 1 to approve the seawall.) Potter says he wanted to implement the $1 million mitigation fee originally recommended by the Coastal Commission staff and put it toward a Bay-wide erosion study, but he was outvoted both on the use of the money and the amount. He doubts the $5.3 million mitigation fee will be useful for buying any oceanfront property in the area. Instead, he says alternatives to seawalls must be explored.
“The oceans are rising and there’s no getting around it,” he says.
Ocean Harbor House will not be the only seawall in the neighborhood. Monterey Beach Resort, just a ways to the north, is also protected by a seawall. On Monday afternoon, hours after high tide, seaweed had washed through the seawall door and collected inside on the second step up to the hotel from the beach.