Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reprint from January: Pacifica Apartment Dwellers Fear for Safety Due to Cliff Erosion

I wanted to post this old article to remind readers of how unhelpful the city, and especially Pacifica City Engineer Van Ocampo, were when Esplanade Ave. apartment owners asked for permission to place riprap at the bottom of the cliff under their apartment buildings. It took over a year to get permission. 

Of special note is Ocampo's request that the owners "donate" $60,000 for a trail, and to repair the nearby city-owned stairs to the beach. - Steve Sinai

Source: Oakland Tribune
Publication date: January 21, 2009
By Julia Scott

PACIFICA -- It doesn't take long for Bart Willoughby to make his point about the ocean gobbling up the bluff that supports his home, La Esplanade Apartments. All he has to do is point to a giant gash in the bluff face to show the erosion that is now within a few feet of his neighbor's back railings, the view a sheer drop to the beachfront below.

"The city had better have an evacuation plan. Any consecutive storms that come in could be a major problem," said Willoughby, gazing over the rail and shaking his head.

More than a year has passed since Willoughby, representing the owners of the apartment
complex and the 200 residents who depend on its safety, first attempted to get an emergency permit from the California Coastal Commission to armor the bottom of the bluff along Esplanade Avenue with 31,000 tons worth of boulders, also known as riprap.

The $4.5 million project now has everything it needs to secure an emergency permit, but there's a major holdup. The city is placing the sole beach access point off-limits to the construction crew until certain conditions are met -- conditions that could cause weeks of delay and cost up to $277,000, according to estimates by the apartment complex owners.

Looking down at the beach, Willoughby can't hide his frustration.

The building will need to be protected by riprap before crews can even get to work filling in the blufftop "blowout" hole that deepens with every winter storm.

That whole project needs to be completed by springtime before the riprap can be reinforced by concrete sheet piles and some heavy re- landscaping, according Steven O'Connor, the principal engineer handling the project.

"The residents here have a lot of anxiety and rightly so. I'm moving as fast as I can, but I have no way to do this project until the city gives us reasonable access under reasonable conditions," said Willoughby. "It seems like the city is more interested in the protection of barren property than the protection of 200 lives."

The dual threats of poor drainage and big waves have taken their toll along the full length of La Esplanade's backside along 310 to 360 Esplanade Ave., the largest unprotected bluff zone in Pacifica.
Portions of the bluff have receded by as much as 10 to 15 feet in the past year alone, estimates O'Connor. Another 15 feet is all it would take to prompt O'Connor to talk to the city about red-tagging the building, which would cause residents to lose their homes.

"It's not like an earthquake, where there's a 60 or 70 percent chance of it happening. This will happen. If not this year, in a couple years. It is going to happen, and it is going to happen soon," said O'Connor.

Pacifica's oceanside views have always come with a dose of danger. Entire homes fell into the ocean during the brutal El Nino storms of 1997-1998, and two homes that were left behind on Esplanade have since been abandoned. Local engineers say they have been hired to help homeowners contend with 50 feet or more of steady bluff retreat.

The city has never inspected the blufftop behind the apartment building, since it is not the city's responsibility to protect private property. The city could, however, be held liable for property damage in the future if it was shown that city officials prevented the building owners from making necessary improvements, O'Connor said.

Willoughby has called the conditions imposed by the city for access to the building site "frivolous" and submitted a letter on Monday arguing with many of them.

But City Engineer Van Ocampo said they are anything but frivolous, such as a requirement that the project's backers hire a geotechnical consultant to assess the stability of the city-owned access route to protect the steep, hard-packed sand bluffs from damage before and during construction.

The most contentious issue is the fact that Ocampo has declared that he will not allow the piles of riprap -- weighing at least 100 tons -- to be stored on the city's narrow blufftop before construction crews carry it to the beach. Ocampo is prepared for the trucks and excavators but worries the extra weight of the rocks would be too much.

"When you're using heavy equipment on our property, it tends to loosen up the sand. If there is any damage to our property, it may not be something we can repair any more."

Ocampo rejected a written statement from O'Connor suggesting the blufftop could handle the load based on its composition. He said the city's site was too narrow for piles of rocks that could just as easily be stored in a nearby parking lot.

O'Connor maintains the repairs will take twice as long if the rocks aren't located on the city's land because construction crews will only be able to work during one low-tide period each day.

The city also asked the apartment owners to install a coastal trail on the public land when the work is done, at an estimated price of $60,000. The main reason for this request is the city has long wanted a trail there and can't afford it, said Ocampo. But he said the city might back down on that particular request.

"If the property owners feel they do not want to do that, all they have to do is say so."

Reach Julia Scott at 650-348-4340 or at


Jeffrey W Simons said...

"If the property owners feel they do not want to do that, all they have to do is say so."

of course if the city then felt like it didn't want to approve the emergency permit to install the protective rip rap, all they had to do was say so. Never has extortion and blackmail been so charmingly explained.

Lionel Emde said...

Whatever the city government might or might not do, it appears that the erosion is moving faster than mankind can move.
There's a picture somewhere in the Tribune archives of what Esplanade looked like in the late 50's--it's amazing, there's got to be a good 30 or 40 feet to the cliffs.

Chris Dant said...

Thanks for the history. I'm a newcomer to Pacifica and the Manor area and this situation has been quite an education!

Kathy Meeh said...

"Of special note is Ocampo's request that the owners "donate" $60,000 for a trail, and to repair the nearby city-owned stairs to the beach." (Steve Sinai) as reported in the Oakland Tribune 1/21/09 (one year ago) by Julia Scott... How's this for "education" to protect an existing property in an emergency situation, Chris? Sounds like another scandal and lawsuit to me.

Anonymous said...

After years of observing and riding the ocean waves as a body surfer hitting the shore I truly believe that the only way the Pacifica owners and engineers are going to save the hillside as well as the apartment buildings above is to erect a "breakwater wall" of heavy rocks at least 15 to 20 yards towards the water and the length of the property located above with the Coastal Commission's approval. Currently the sea waves are saturating the hillside everytime a wave hits the shore acting like a sponge as the salt water is penatrating right threw the rip rap attempt. The sea wave's water motion needs to be stopped so the hillside can dry itself out and stabilize. A "breakwater wall" of rocks 5 to 6 feet renenforced with some substance needs to be erected ASAP. After experiencing and studying water motion especially the ocean waves both ground swells and sea waves out at sea after serving in the Navy and it's destruction on various coasts you understand the consequences of the waves which are currently saturating the hillside supporting the apartment buildings. I hope someone reads this in time and takes the appropriate action in a timely manner....

Anonymous said...

It is obvious that someone doesn't understand that the hillside underneath the three apartment complexs will continue to erode even though a cement covering is being sprayed on the soil as the hill currently is like a sponge absorded with sea water taking bits of cliffside away periodically. The fact is the hillside will continue to erode until such time as a "6 to 8 foot sea wall/breakwater wall" is constructed to eliminate and reduce the wave action slowly penatrating the bottom of the hillside adding more saturation to the existing soil content. The existing rocks/bolders at the bottom of the hillside can be relocated into a seawall with some solid substance poured in between the cracks to avoid the sea water from leaking through the bypass spaces. Additionally planting landscaping groundcover with deep rooting system is another method of controlling soil erosion on the hillside. Time is the factor in getting the seawall/breakwater wall built to avoid further the ocean waters rise our coastlines are at risk for future erosion and damage!