Opinion: Green Light

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How many Laguna blufftops are you willing to kiss goodbye, forever?

By Tom Osborne

By Tom Osborne

At the upcoming city council meeting on April 4, the Blufftop Overlay District (BOD) proposal will reportedly be revisited. I’m even more skeptical of the proposal. Why? 

First, our putatively erosion-resistant cliffs show seeming instability. My wife and I visited Table Rock Beach a few days ago and photographed some large rocks at the bottom of a blufftop coded green on a council map, indicating low-erosion risk. The rocks seemed to be of the same composition as the embankment. A neighbor there told us those fallen rocks resulted from irrigation water used on the blufftop a while back and had not fallen due to our recent atmospheric river-induced storms. I take little comfort in that explanation because future irrigation–copious amounts–will likely come from skyward downpours. Next, I visited Heisler Park Beach and saw and photographed a slide area almost directly below the gazebo. The pile of uprooted debris at the foot of the cliff matched the intact vegetation at the top of the cliff. I scraped some of the soil from the intact face of the cliff and easily crumpled it in one hand, suggesting the embankment below the gazebo is unstable.

Second, I’m dismayed by the city’s process for its earlier decision on March 7 to go forward with its BOD proposal, which it rescinded on March 21. Why the rescinding? City manager Shohreh Dupuis declared that those citizens speaking in opposition were “confused.” Thus staff would rework the proposal so that we confused folks could better understand why the BOD was good for Laguna Beach. Then, instead of gaining a clear sense of where the citizenry stood on this matter, City Hall reportedly floated the BOD proposal before an architect and developer working group. If so, how representative is such a group of Laguna’s citizenry? Either way, let’s hope city hall will explain its outreach effort to the public more fully regarding this consequential coastal development issue.

Third, we skeptics would like to know why council is dealing with this measure while extreme weather conditions, ever more powerful waves, and King Tides augur the new normal. The Coastal Commission warns that due to sea-level rise the king tides of the present will be the everyday tides of the “next few decades.” Has this consideration been factored into the Council majority’s past approval of a BOD? Just when the Coastal Commission is counseling coastal retreat in some instances, city hall advocates selective coastal advance into the mandated 25-foot setback virtually to the cliff edge.

Fourth, if the contested measure passes and lives and property are lost, the proposed ordinance specifies that city advocates for its passage are to be held harmless in any liability lawsuits.  

Fifth, our citizenry has not been provided with information from the city about how many homes/properties along our blufftops would be affected (presumably for the material benefit of their owners) by the proposed policy change? 

Nor have we been given an estimated amount of square footage of new development that would be added to Laguna’s blufftops if the proposed measure passes.

Sixth, I have heard that the city advocates the blufftop policy change to avoid lawsuits. If true, it is equally true that environmental groups might take the city to court for not upholding the Coastal Act’s provisions protecting the littoral environment and possible ESHA (environmentally sensitive habitat areas) violations on the blufftops. 

Seventh, the city’s failure to conduct an initial study pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act to assess the likelihood of damaging environmental impacts speaks powerfully against adopting the proposed BOD.

Unless these and other questions related to this highly contested policy change are persuasively answered on April 4, it may be time to bury what seems an ill-conceived and unpopular measure. Once blufftops are gone, they’re gone forever. Email city council with your thoughts.

Tom Osborne wrote Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and the Fight to Save California’s Shore (University of California Press, 2018). His email is [email protected].

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