Terrace Avenue working group will seek millions from townspeople for bluff armoring

06/05/2014

Surfer’s Overlook, a well-known spot on Terrace Avenue in Bolinas used to check out the waves or just enjoy a nice view of Agate Beach, has long been known to be unstable. But now a local working group says that if community members don’t raise hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money in the near future—and millions in total—to stabilize it, the 200-foot section of Terrace could soon collapse. 

That would not only destroy the iconic spot, but eliminate one of two routes off the town’s largest neighborhood, known as the Big Mesa. 

“It would be a safety problem, and it’s just not a condition we can live with,” said the chief of the Bolinas Fire Protection District, Anita Tyrrell-Brown. She added that if the overlook collapsed, emergency vehicles would struggle to back out of Terrace during a disaster.

On Saturday morning, the working group, comprised of board members and employees of the utility and fire districts, shared their vision for a two-phased project—first to stabilize the road, then the entire bluff—with residents who live on Terrace or its side streets.

So far, the group has commissioned $120,000 in studies to evaluate the extent of the problem and what must be done to prevent collapse.

A 2011 technical report by a geological consulting firm said that the wooden protective walls currently in place, installed in 1967, have slowed down rates of bluff erosion to a few inches per year. But the road at Surfer’s Overlook is at risk of collapsing in the next few years because walls on the upper portion of the bluff are rotting, splitting and bowing. 

The lower sea wall is in somewhat better shape, having been repaired by unidentified people in recent years. (Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who was at the meeting, called them “night patrols and other angels.”) But it too will eventually fail, the report said, possibly within five years, depending on the severity of future storms. If that happened, the waves would eat the toe of the cliff and render any upper repairs moot.  

The utility district moved its high-pressure water line last year to avoid a catastrophe in the event of an imminent slide, but a sewer line still runs beneath the problematic section of road. 

The cost of the studies was split between the county and local districts—but now there will be little or no more funding from the county, which undertook a $1.7 million fix of Terrace when it slid further up, at Overlook Drive, in 2010. 

That slide was so severe that people couldn’t even walk through the road without stepping onto private property, said Jennifer Blackman, the general manager of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District.

By law, Marin must ensure each home can access a public road, but there is no requirement that there be more than one exit route from residences.

Without raising hundreds of thousands of dollars soon, the process will simply stop, and Surfer’s Overlook will eventually slide away, said David Kimball, a fire district board member. If the top erodes too much, he said, “we’re done. We won’t be able to bother with a full bluff repair. We’re at a point where if you say ‘I don’t want to do the top,’…we’re done.”

The question, therefore, is whether Bolinas will foot the bill of maintaining the access route and Surfer’s Overlook.

Within the next few years it would take between $200,000 to $400,000 to undertake what the working group calls the first phrase: fixing the upper retaining wall to stabilize the road at Surfer’s Overlook. That won’t require a coastal permit, they say, because it should be considered maintenance. But ongoing erosion means that if the first phase doesn’t happen soon, both it and the much more significant second phrase—stabilizing the entire bluff—could become impossible.  

Fixing that retaining wall, said Supervisor Kinsey, “is critically important over the next two, to three, to five years.”

The studies and permits for that process will likely cost about $200,000. (In addition to the coastal permit, the group might also need a permit from the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, though it is still unclear whether or not the project would fall under its jurisdiction.)

Not including the permits and studies, the bluff stabilization would cost between $3 million and $4 million. Based on both efficacy and chances of getting approval from the California Coastal Commission, the geotechnical firm recommended a retaining wall that mimics the appearance of the sandstone cliff and shields the entire face. 

James Kirkham, who owns property right behind Surfer’s Overlook, said he always thought it was inevitable that the road would eventually slip away. “It’s a wonderful old house and we love it dearly,” he said, adding that he assumed nothing could be done about the erosion of the bluff. He would like to see it saved, but realizes it will take a lot of convincing to rally community support.

Despite the price tag, the working group believes the survival of the road and overlook is possible. “We think most everyone…wants to keep Terrace Avenue where it is,” said Ralph Camiccia, a former Bolinas fire chief. (A traffic study undertaken by the county some years ago evaluated the possibility of moving Terrace behind the homes along it, but residents rejected that idea.)

Other long-timers described their attachment to the spot and the ability to drive down Terrace. Rudi Ferris, the chair of the Bolinas Rod and Boat Club, said he grew up going up and down the road, passing by the overlook. “It would be a huge and major loss,” he said.

Mr. Kinsey said if Bolinas demonstrates a commitment to the project, the county just might kick in some support—but likely no more than 10 or 15 percent of the total cost, if they contribute at all. Grants, the working group says, are also scarce for such projects.

Some at the Saturday meeting wondered if the project shouldn’t be divided, considering the enormity of the total cost: focus on the first phase now, and raise money for studies and permits for the second phase later.

Others feared that bifurcating the focus would threaten the momentum of the project as a whole. Without moving forward both on the upper fix while simultaneously pursuing studies and permits for the bigger project, the big bluff stabilization might never happen.

Mr. Kinsey, who also serves as the chair of the coastal commission, noted that armoring along the coastline is increasingly controversial. “[But] there is room to be persuasive,” he said, particularly if proposals include measures to improve coastal access.

But that depends on whether or not the town will ultimately choose to move forward. It is, Mr. Kinsey said, now in the town’s hands. “Is Terrace Avenue valuable enough to us that we want to keep it, as a community?” he asked.