San Francisco could be on the hook for up to $30 million if a judge decides in favor of a group suing The City over its emergency rock walls at Ocean Beach.
Since 1997, the Department of Public Works has periodically been piling up material at the southern end of the beach near Sloat Boulevard to protect infrastructure — namely a sewer and the Great Highway — which are slowly being encroached upon by the Pacific Ocean due to erosion from massive storms, most recently in the winter of 2010.
But environmental groups say the department’s 14 years of stopgap protection measures clearly violate the California Coastal Act and they want The City to pursue a longer-term solution involving restoration of the beach with new sand deposits and abandonment of the road and sewer. The lawsuit filed this month by the Santa Barbara-based California Coastal Protection Network likens the beach scene to a “post-apocalyptic war zone” that includes discarded road concrete and rebar, threatening wildlife and making beach access dangerous for visitors.
The court action comes on the heels of a California Coastal Commission ruling last month denying a five-year permit for the Department of Public Works to expand the wall and improve beach access while it mulls a more permanent solution to the erosion. The ruling also points out that DPW acted illegally during most of its efforts to reinforce the beach. Even when the commission granted a permit for a 425-foot wall in February 2010, it was built much larger than what was approved.
Vic Otten, an attorney for the California Coastal Protection Network, argues that because DPW knowingly expanded the wall without permits, The City could be open to the maximum fine of $15,000 a day per violation for the full statute of limitations, which goes back three years.
“No one is against The City trying to protect infrastructure,” Otten said. “But when they go out and do what they did, it sends a bad message that the greenest city in the nation can just refuse to comply with the Coastal Act.”
Dean LaTourrette, executive director of the Save the Waves Coaltion, said his group favors shaping the area to look more like Crissy Field, with bicycle trails and open space for recreation. He said if the lawsuit yields money from The City, it should go into a central fund for beach improvements.
Both the Department of Public Works and the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is scheduled for a case management conference Jan. 6 in San Francisco Superior Court.