Against the recommendation of its own staff, the California Coastal Commission voted 9-1 on July 8 to deny Santa Barbara County’s proposal to build a permeable pile pier-a structure designed to slow the effects of beach erosion-at Goleta Beach.
After facing a decade’s worth of El Ni±o storms, erosion prompted community concern for the future of the beach, the county’s most-visited public park. Most weekends, throngs of people enjoy the park’s green lawns and sandy beach, and public sentiment has largely favored protecting it. Although the county was singularly dedicated to developing the permeable pier proposal, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and the Santa Barbara chapter of the Surfrider Foundation have sought an alternative with fewer environmental impacts. The group’s alternative solution-initially called a “managed retreat” and more recently “park reconfiguration,” it would move infrastructure so that the beach can fluctuate safely and naturally-appears to have driven the final nail in the pile pier’s coffin.
“This is a big surprise to us. We thought that because of staff approval, we’d just get a nod to get approved and go home,” said Dave Hardy, co-owner of the Beachside Cafe. Situated at the base of the pier, Hardy’s business has perhaps more to lose than others weighing in on the situation; and, according to county officials, the cafe’s lease generates approximately $260,000 in annual county revenue. The Coastal Commission’s final verdict was not the only surprise during Wednesday’s proceedings. At the last minute, Coastal Commission alternate Dr. Dan Secord unexpectedly recused himself because of supportive public comments he had made on July 2. “I went to Goleta City Council and advocated for the project, and that wasn’t the proper thing to do, so I had to recuse myself,” he said.
While park reconfiguration was not an option being considered by the county, EDC and Surfrider campaigned to bring it before coastal commissioners. The two environmental groups hired experts for an independent study comparing their proposal against the county’s. That study’s results made their alternative all the more appealing, with lower costs and fewer impacts on the beach and its guests. EDC environmental analyst Brian Trautwein indicated that starting up the permeable pile project would cost about $2 million more than the alternative. Additionally, ongoing maintenance over the next decade would total more than $20 million for the permeable pier, compared with $8.4 million for park reconfiguration.
During the last few decades, storm damage has threatened the integrity of asphalt parking surfaces, utility lines, bathroom structures, and the cafe. The county has responded with coastal armoring in the form of rock piles that protected beachfront infrastructure as coastal sands washed away. EDC and Surfrider, key detractors of this approach, said the rock piles were unpermitted and caused further erosion at and down the coast from Goleta Beach. Other proposed mitigation measures included rock walls, more dredging, and managed retreat. That last option was dismissed by the county as giving up valuable parkland area, and stone structures were seen as too heavy-handed a solution. When Moffatt & Nichol, the engineering firm in the county’s employ, offered the permeable pile option, it was lauded as innovative. Environmental groups were still not convinced and called for the removal of rocks, which they said sacrificed the beach for grass.
Ultimately, the Coastal Commission’s staff recommended the permeable pile pier, but with 18 conditions covering everything from potential habitat impacts to the type of dredging equipment used. Commissioners, one by one, called the permeable pier experimental and innovative but said they needed more information and physical modeling to commit to it. Several commissioners expressed reservations that the permeable pier is the best way to protect the beach. Although a motion was made to continue the project, Coastal Commission staff said that dedicating more time and resources to it would not be productive. Neither the county nor most of the commissioners wanted to continue, so the project was voted down by all except Commissioner Khatchik Achadjian.
“There are a lot of pissed-off stakeholders out there that are going to want nothing to do with managed retreat,” said Dan Hernandez, county parks director, after the decision effectively sent the county back to the drawing board. County records show approximately $70,000 was spent on a public relations campaign to promote the permeable pile to commissioners and the public.
Trautwein said EDC and Surfrider would like to work with the county to come up with something everyone can agree on. “We would like to find an alternative solution that protects the park, the beach, and the environment,” he said. “Today, the commission upheld the Coastal Act. It was a victory for our beaches and for people who love beaches.”