The California Coastal Commission last month stymied the plans of a Bolinas homeowner who hopes to protect his bluff-side house by erecting an underground retaining wall. The commission foremost disputed that erosion posed a great enough threat to the house to warrant armoring, citing coastal development regulations.

Tom Bassett, a San Francisco resident who owns a property on Ocean Parkway where a landslide occurred two years ago, received a coastal permit in October to build the wall. But two commissioners appealed the county-approved permit in November, and the full commission concurred last month that there was a “substantial issue” with the project. 

The fate of the project now lies in the hands of the commissioners, who can appeal any county projects that lie between the sea and Highway 1. At a Dec. 13 hearing, the commission continued the matter to an undetermined date and requested the applicant provide further materials, including a new geological report and an analysis of alternative solutions.

“I thought we had done everything,” Mr. Bassett said. “To get anything done on a house in Marin County is quite extensive in terms of the permitting process, and I don’t think there was any ‘t’ uncrossed or ‘i’ undotted. It’s so confusing to me as to why the [commission] would appeal it.”

The county had approved a 1.5-foot wide concrete wall three feet underground and 100 feet long. For reinforcement, concrete piers and tiebacks would extend more than 30 feet below and into the bedrock.

The commissioners who appealed it, Dr. Caryl Hart and Sara Aminzadeh, voiced three primary issues detailed in a staff report.

“The county-approved project allows shoreline armoring for a residence without sufficiently demonstrating that the residence is in danger or that the approved project is the least environmentally damaging alternative,” the staff wrote. “In addition, the appellants contend that the approved project does not adequately mitigate for resultant impacts to coastal resources, including public access, public views, and beach resources.”

The report argues how, on these counts, the project is inconsistent with Marin’s own Local Coastal Program. That document identifies the development ground rules in the coastal zone; the county and coastal commission have been updating it in increments for years, but the sections related to environmental hazards are outstanding. 

It’s those rules that apply to many of the points at issue in the Ocean Parkway project.

The staff report points to the chapter on shoreline protection in Marin’s L.C.P., which allows armoring only in circumstances where the structures proposed are in danger from erosion. Staff wrote, “There is a certain amount of risk involved in maintaining any development along the actively eroding California coastline, and the risk increases where the site is subject to violent storms, wave attack, flooding, earthquakes, and other hazards. These risks can be exacerbated by such factors as sea-level rise and localized geography that can focus storm energy at particular stretches of coastline. In a sense, all development along the immediate California coastline is in a certain amount of ‘danger.’”

Yet in practice, the staff went on, the commission has allowed for armoring only in circumstances where the structure in question—which must predate the L.C.P.—would be unsafe to use or occupy within two or three storm-season cycles if nothing were to be done. Based on an analysis from Mr. Bassett’s engineers, the Ocean Parkway property has more time.

Two years ago, a landslide on Ocean Parkway took out 20 feet of bluff, discontinuing the use of a public road between the home and cliff and bringing the edge to within 44 feet of the house. The rate of erosion estimated by the engineers is between 1.3 and 3.3 feet per year; that puts the house out of danger by the coastal commission’s standards. (Mr. Bassett’s engineering report also projects 53 feet of bluff retreat over the next 40 years, which would result in the loss of the house.)

On a second related point, coastal commission staff said that the threat of erosion is widespread in Bolinas, and that the L.C.P. only “allows for shoreline protection if demonstrated that the erosion problem is site-specific and not attributable to a general erosion trend, or the project reduces the need for a number of individual projects and solves a regional erosion problem.”

Commission staff also argued that there is insufficient evidence that the project is the least environmentally damaging feasible alternative, and that it would not reduce public access or enjoyment and use of the shoreline—two other requirements under the L.C.P. There could be other ways to reinforce the house that had less impact on the bluff, staff argued.

“The county’s approval did not analyze any impacts to public access or sand supply, nor did the approval incorporate required measures or conditions to mitigate the impacts thereto, including to visual resource impacts from the shoreline protection device as further erosion and slides occur, inconsistent with L.C.P. resource protection policies,” the report states.

The commission asked Mr. Bassett to prepare a new geological report, a detailed alternatives’ analysis evaluating the effectiveness, feasibility and potential coastal resource impacts of non-structural stabilization approaches—such as site drainage improvements—and an analysis of a full or partial relocation of the existing structure out of harm’s way.

Mr. Bassett told the Light that he wished the commissioners would visit the site, considering that visitors typically have a “visceral reaction.” With two young kids at home, he said it was difficult to not have his safety concerns fully addressed.

His lawyer, Leonard Rifkind, sent a letter to the commission in December in which he expressed concern that the commission staff had not evaluated the most recent engineering report—from 2019—and instead looked at 2016 data, before the slide occurred. He disputes that the project violates the L.C.P. and that there is a need for further environmental analysis. 

Mr. Rifkind also argues that the project will have public benefit—at the cost of the homeowner—considering the county has abandoned the road that used to border the property. 

Katie Rice, a Marin County supervisor who joined the commission last summer, expressed concern at the Dec. 13 hearing that her fellow commissioners were not looking at the most recent application materials for the project, but she did not dispute the appeal.

The commission staff made clear how the agency intends to handle the issue of armoring in the future. “As the Coastal Commission and local governments up and down the coast prepare responses and strategies to minimize the impacts of sea-level rise, it will be increasingly necessary to assure adverse impacts to public resources, such as sandy beaches, are avoided and eliminated where possible by allowing shoreline protection devices only in compliance with the very narrow circumstances Marin L.C.P. lays out,” they wrote.

Yet it’s possible those regulations will change in the near future. Jack Liebster, the planning manager with the county’s community development agency, said that a public process to consider proposed new language for the two outstanding chapters of the L.C.P. that pertain to environmental hazards will commence in early 2020.