Pismo delays action on seawalls as goodwill gesture

Pismo Beach planning commissioners decided this week to delay action on two seawalls in hopes of maintaining good relations with the California Coastal Commission.

But the Pismo Beach Planning Commission’s unanimous decision appeared to be more a gesture of goodwill than anything else, because the seawalls have already been constructed in Shell Beach under an emergency permit issued by the city in December.

The construction came as a surprise to Coastal Commission staff, who had been expecting to receive a follow-up application from the city for one of the seawalls and had determined the other was unnecessary.

“It was not clear to us until last week that they had started or completed work on both seawalls,” said Dan Carl, the commission’s Central Coast regional director.

The city recently finished work on the $2.3 million project to install seawalls at two locations: one to protect the sewage pumping station at Vista del Mar and Ocean Boulevard, the other to shore up Ocean Boulevard between Wawona and Capistrano avenues.

The Planning Commission was scheduled Tuesday to approve the work after the fact. But a strongly worded letter from the Coastal Commission — which urged planning commissioners to postpone their vote — prompted the board to reconsider.

Planning commissioners debated whether delaying a vote would appear to undermine their support for the city’s actions. Several commissioners said they wanted to show united support for city staff but also did not want to harm the city’s relationship with the Coastal Commission.

“I think what a continuance would do is give the city an opportunity to discuss what might be the best way to repair our relationship with the Coastal Commission,” Planning Commissioner Eric Woodhouse said.

It’s unknown, however, whether the city and Coastal Commission can reach a compromise on the seawall projects. Commission staff believes at least part of the project is in an area where the state panel has direct jurisdiction, requiring its approval of any development. Commissioners can also appeal the project once the city takes action on its coastal development permit.

“Ultimately this project will have to get blessed by the commission,” Carl said. Any work done without its approval is technically a violation, he added.

City staffers believe the seawalls are within the city’s jurisdiction. They worried that a landslide could cause the sewer infrastructure to fail, spilling raw sewage into the ocean and leaving hundreds of Shell Beach residents without sewer services.

Community Development Director Jon Biggs issued the emergency permit in December 2011 after an inspection revealed that parts of the coastal bluff had become unstable.

By issuing an emergency permit, the city bypassed the normal approval process and immediately started work to shore up eroding bluffs to protect sewage lines and a sewage pumping station.

Coastal Commission staff, however, did not believe that the structures were in danger of eroding and wanted the city to consider other alternatives, such as relocating the pumping station. Biggs said it could cost upward of $70 million to relocate the pumping station, sewer lines and other work.

The Coastal Commission already considered and denied a proposed seawall at the Vista del Mar site in March 2011, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still involved. Carl said commission staff issued an emergency permit for the Ocean Boulevard seawall in May, but was expecting the city to file a follow-up application.

Biggs said the city declined to accept the Coastal Commission’s emergency permit and continued the work under its own emergency permit.

“My preferred resolution is the Coastal Commission staff sees the need for the emergency permit in that it was necessary to do the work that was done to protect city facilities and protect access for the public,” Biggs said.