Boulder walls — called rip rap or revetments — along beach homes in Oceanside are used to protect properties from waves and high tides. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Though it was low tide, waves lapped against the base of the boulder wall fortifying Tony Ditty’s beachfront Oceanside home on a misty Wednesday morning.

A sizeable stretch of dry beach once separated the wall and the waves when he bought the home in 2002, Ditty said. His wall has withstood the Pacific’s barrage, but rocks are falling from his neighbor’s wall.

Whether the width of the beach is shrinking due to climate change and rising sea levels, coastal development or both, the fact of the matter is: Oceanside, like many of Southern California coastal communities, is struggling to protect its beachfront properties. And how the city used to deal with sea damage is now being challenged by the state.

A walk down the shore running parallel to South Pacific Street means picking your way through slick boulders that have tumbled from protective walls onto the sand. The boulders sometimes fall across the line separating the city’s and state’s jurisdictions over the coast. Homeowners are sort of expected to take care of their respective walls, Ditty said.

“So one agency wants us to maintain our rip rap and another agency won’t let us on the beach to do it,” Ditty said, using another term to describe these boulder walls.

That’s precisely what triggered an ongoing debacle back in March between the city of Oceanside and the California Coastal Commission, which is adding fuel to a larger debate over what Oceanside should do about its shrinking coastline.

In that dispute, boulders fell onto the beach in the 1200 block of South Pacific Street and the city gave property owners permission to fix it. Surfrider, a beach preservation advocacy group, caught wind of backhoes working in front of those properties and told the Coastal Commission that the city was illegally allowing private property owners to expand their property lines onto the public beach.

The Coastal Commission demanded the city to halt the work so it could investigate whether everyone was following state rules.

The Coastal Commission issues coastal development permits for property owners within the state’s coastal zone for all kinds of activities, including any construction work along a public beach. But Oceanside is a bit unique here. Jonathan Borrego, Oceanside’s deputy city manager, said city law written in the 1980s allows property owners to do certain types of repair work to their boulder walls – called revetments – without having to get a coastal development permit.

“Not all cities have that discretion and authority,” Borrego said. “So we have a history of allowing homeowners to essentially make repairs to their revetment as long as they’re following certain guidelines.”

Homeowners are supposed to ask the city for permission to do repair work from behind their property line, meaning they can’t operate any machinery on the state beach. The city restricts how much, what type and where material can be placed, and Oceanside’s engineering staff reviews the plans to make sure they follow wall-design standards.

Of course, not everybody follows the rules.

“People have done work out there without the city’s knowledge, without a doubt,” Borrego said. “And when we find that work has been done we do take enforcement actions … It can go all the way to city issuing criminal citations.”

But the city’s code enforcement is complaint-driven, meaning city staff doesn’t proactively walk the beach looking for violations. If they did, they’d see quite a few. It’s not legal, for instance, to pour concrete between the boulders of a revetment, yet concrete-reinforced boulder walls are a common sight along the beach.

Boulder walls — called rip rap or revetments — along beach homes in Oceanside are used to protect properties from waves and high tides. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It’s not allowed because concrete creates an impervious wall, meaning a wave’s energy slams against the revetment all at once instead of breaking up among the nooks and crannies of a more natural structure.

The Coastal Commission decided the boulder wall work done in the 1200 block of South Pacific Street that day wasn’t exempt from getting special state permission, because homeowners were bringing in new rock, sand and machinery within 20 feet of coastal waters.

But what if the coastal waters are already at a homeowner’s doorstep even during low tide?

“As time has gone on and as tidal conditions have changed out there, the revetment is definitely seeing more damage now than it ever has before. That’s why we’re getting so many requests (for repair),” Borrego said.

Borrego estimates homeowners now submit about six requests for revetment repair a year, which is “a lot from a historical standpoint,” he said.

The dispute with the Coastal Commission spurred Oceanside to change its process for rubber-stamping repair work. Borrego said the city didn’t have a formal application for a homeowner to submit work requests; it was a more “informal process” that involved reviews by city engineering staff. That’s changed.

The Coastal Commission and Oceanside are due to meet July 1 to try and work out a solution. But there’s a bigger issue at stake than permitting maintenance work.

The city of Oceanside is updating what’s known as a Local Coastal Program, which spells out the types of development and projects that need Coastal Commission permission. The Coastal Commission also needs to sign off on any city’s Local Coastal Program. Oceanside is also working through its own assessment of how climate change is going to shrink the beach and endanger coastal homes down the line, a process that involves studying how to add and keep sand on the beach.

“The issue of sand replenishment is one of the top issues we’re dealing with at the city,” Borrego said. “The challenge is, at least in recent years, the amount of sand replenishment has not been able to keep up with the amount of sand loss. There is a sense of urgency.”

It’s not alone. The city of Del Mar is currently at odds with the Coastal Commission over a piece of its Local Coastal Program dictating how it’ll deal with global warming-induced sea-level rise, in part because the city isn’t planning to move properties off the crumbling coastline, according to the Del Mar Times.

Oceanside is holding a public workshop on June 30 to discuss a series of “sand studies” the city hopes to present to the City Council. There are a few options on the table, like building jetties or an artificial reef designed to keep sand near the coast.

Tony Ditty owns a beach home in Oceanside where boulder walls are used to protect properties from waves and high tides. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Managed retreat, a climate policy term that strikes fear in many coastal hearts because it implies a mandate to abandon and move properties away from the modern coastline, isn’t on the table in Oceanside – yet.

Borrego said, according to the scientific sea-level rise projections the city has, managed retreat isn’t “something that will have to be implemented” for at least another 20 years. That’s also the average lifespan of a local coastal plan.

“We’d probably be looking at the Coastal Commission for that sort of language,” Borrego said. “That’s not something the city would proactively ask the property owner to do.”

When I asked Ditty what he would do if the government told him the ocean was going to destroy his home and he had to move, he took a long look at the waves.

“I’m certainly not going to try and maintain property that the climate is going to make unsafe. Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t give you any choices,” Ditty said. “That’s a risk that I take owning a piece of property on the beach. But I don’t think it’s going to be the government dictating it so much as Mother Nature.”

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