Posted on December 14, 2020
Rock boulders and sand bags serving as a bandage to save what’s left at Capistrano Beach can remain – for now.
The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday, Dec. 9, voted 8 to 2 in favor of a proposal that will give OC Parks added time to figure out what to do with the small stretch of beach that has been battered by the coast.
While the meeting centered around this part of the coast, wedged between Doheny State Beach and a private beach-front community, much of the two-hour debate circled around the ongoing challenges with sea-levels rise and the frustration with “hard armoring” emergency measures that stay longer than intended.
A plan and update must come before the commission in one year, with an option to extend an additional year given the county has made progress moving forward in finding a solution, commissioners said.
“In my mind, this is a classic example of the present and future impacts of sea-level rise,” Vice Chair Donne Brownsey said. “Clearly, they are committed to this community, committed to try and find the right solution to find an answer to an unanswerable question – which is going to face so many of our communities up and down the state.”
Armoring, or adding big rock boulders, to try and save infrastructure, does not save a beach, she said. “These waves are acting as nature does because that is the natural impact of the changes we will be experiencing as we move forward with this.”
The county, which manages the beach, has made emergency repairs as each storm slammed the coast, removing jagged, broken sidewalk and parking lot, taking out a busted basketball court and piling big rock boulders and sand bags to try and keep the ocean at bay.
The area was once so wide it hosted volleyball courts and a row of fire rings in an area where now the sea slaps onto a row of big boulders put in place to protect a parking lot.
The county has held several community meetings following a series of storms two years ago that demolished a wooden walkway, the popular basketball courts and restrooms, and a section of parking lot and concrete boardwalk.
By adding rock barriers and sand cubes, short-term fixes will allow OC Parks to come up with a master plan for Capistrano Beach Park’s future, planners said.
Stacy Blackwood, director of OC Parks, showed images and talked about the area’s past, back to the ’20s when a private beach club with a swimming pool and pier once existed, to the ’60s when the Dana Point Harbor was built, with much of the sand taken from the construction put on Capistrano’s shoreline.
The wide beach existed until the early 2000s. Erosion has been so severe in the past three years it prompted emergency action to remove public amenities.
Surfrider Foundation leaders argued keeping the rocks and sand cubes, put in as part of an emergency permit, would perpetuate erosion and impact public access along the beach.
Mandy Sackett, California policy coordinator for the foundation, argued the beach should be returned to its natural state with a living shoreline, a mix of cobblestone, sand and native plants, reminiscent of before the beach club, basketball courts and parking lot were put in.
“We’re nostalgic for these days when there was enough sand and sediment to make riding waves at Capo Beach, but now it’s just shorebreak,” she said.
“At this point, only a dangerous parking lot and seawall remain,” she said. “What is it that we’re really saving here? A beach or an old parking lot? We don’t need more interim, hap-hazard planning.”
Denise Erkeneff, Surfrider Foundation’s South County chapter, showed photos from a July 4 high tide and big-wave event that sent water over the rocks and into the parking lot.
“The infrastructure that exists below has created unsafe conditions and hindered public access, not protecting it,” she said, noting the rocks and sand cubes are “miserably failing.”
Carol Wilson, a 42-year resident of Capistrano Beach, said it’s one of the few places elderly or people with disabilities can park their car near the ocean.
“Allow additional time for studies and decisions and prevent taking away our accessed parking by the beach without exploring all the possibilities.” said Wilson, who has auto-immunity disease and scoliosis.
Commissioner Mike Wilson said he wants the county to look at using a swath of land owned by Beach Road homeowners near the trail, engaging nearby residents to try and find more space where a walking, jogging and bike path could be extend, further away from the water.
Toni Nelson, founder of the community advocacy group Capo Cares that formed in 2014, said temporary protections kept in place would help save the stretch of beach and it is part of a larger, regional stretch from Dana Point Harbor to Cotton Point south of San Clemente.
She argued the Surfrider Foundation’s proposal to take out the rocks and instead put in a living shoreline was “unrealistic, short-sighted and reckless.”
“It would hasten the destruction of Capo Beach, and endanger critical infrastructure that is wedged between the Pacific and a 100-foot bluff,” she said. “We all want environmentally sensitive solutions, but a narrow sand berm with native grasses is no match for wave action that can move boulders and toss concrete benches like toys. This is not only a beloved beach, but a critical buffer protecting critical infrastructure that has no retreat options. Saving Capo Beach saves so much more than a beach.”
Vice Chair Brownsey said the decision-makers are going to have to make hard choices.
“Do you want a parking lot or do you want a beach? I don’t think you get to have a lot of amenities here. Those options are behind you,” she said. “I really implore the county and the city to truly take an honest, realistic look at what your options are in your management plan.
“You are already late,” she said. “And I do hope that you are able to come up with a viable plan that will save some elements of this resource you so highly treasure – and that we also treasure – and hope to protect for the people, for the State of California.”