Environmental group sues San Francisco over Ocean Beach rock piles

Ocean Beach rock wall

A rock revetment under construction on Ocean Beach in September 2010. Photo: Tom Prete / Ocean Beach Bulletin

An environmental organization has filed a lawsuit against San Francisco, seeking to force the city to remove rock piles and other structures the group says were placed improperly on Ocean Beach, plus what could be tens of millions of dollars in civil fines.

“[The California Coastal Protection Network] looks forward to the day when San Francisco removes the debris they have illegally dumped in the ocean and near shore area and begins the implementation of thoughtful, resource protection based long term planning,” CCPN Executive Director Susan Jordan said in a written statement.

The California Coastal Protection Network filed the suit in San Francisco Superior Court through the Otten and Joyce law firm and outer Sunset District lawyer Mark Massara.

“This is going to be one of the largest, if not the largest coastal enforcement actions ever,” said Massara, a prominent environmental lawyer and resident of the Ocean Beach area.

“Our lawsuit reflects our extreme frustration” that the city has ignored the matter and made it worse since 1999, he said.

“The city is not entitled to just go out there and do whatever work they feel like.”

Massara said San Francisco should be addressing the impacts of coastal erosion and rising sea levels through a long-term process including managed retreat from parts of the coast, under the approval of the California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over a broad range of coastal construction and other activities.

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is in the process of reviewing the suit and will not comment on it until a formal response is prepared, said Matt Dorsey, the city attorney’s communications director.

A trial could take years, Massara said, but he expects an initial response from the City Attorney’s Office within a few weeks.

Massara acknowledged that the actual amount of civil fines — if any — the city may pay is the stuff of negotiation and courtroom lawyering. But with fines for willful violation of the California Coastal Act coming in at $15,000 per day, per violation, he said it’s possible that San Francisco could face as much as $30 million in penalties by his reckoning.

Fines paid for violation of the Coastal Act go to the California State Coastal Conservancy, a state agency dedicated to protecting California’s coastal resources.

In July, the San Francisco Department of Public Works asked the Coastal Commission for permission to install hundreds of feet of new rock revetments and walls on the southern end of Ocean Beach, between Sloat Boulevard and Fort Funston. DPW told the commission the construction was necessary to protect the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant — a treatment facility just east of the Great Highway that processes the waste water for the western part of the city — from coastal erosion such as the damage that prompted the city to close an adjacent part of the Great Highway in January 2010.

DPW also wanted the commission to retroactively legalize stretches of rock walls the city installed years ago without a permit.

But the commission unanimously denied the request for a permit. Commissioners expressed doubts that a true short-term emergency existed in that area of Ocean Beach, and indicated frustration that DPW had come to them with only short-term work instead of with a long-term plan to address continuing erosion issues.

One result of the Coastal Commission’s outright rejection of the permit request, said Massara, is that the city had no outside incentive to clean up existing rocks and other hard structures in the southern portion of Ocean Beach, including the material that had been installed without permits.

Massara said it was apparent DPW also didn’t take seriously a 1999 Board of Supervisors resolution stating that the board “prohibits the expenditure of funds on the use of hard structures, such as rock revetment or seawalls, to stabilize conditions at Ocean Beach” and urging the removal of rocks in place at the time.

“The reality is the city was ordered by the Board of Supervisors in 1999 to pick up the rocks,” Massara said. “I’ve lost all faith in their ability to follow through.”

Read the complete text of the California Coastal Protection Lawsuit filed against San Francisco.

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  1. yeah lawyers are the only ones who benefit from this……….. dont put anything. its a waste of money cause mother nature is going to fuck it all up anyways. where does the $15,000 a day go? pocket money? back to california? back to san francisco because its in california?

    personally getting down those rocks is really annoying. sometimes the rocks are wet and slippery and i dont have and hands to put down because im walking down with a surf board. ive only almost fallen but i have extreme balance, so im sure any other person has fallen. but erosion is happening no matter what you do so take the rocks out…….. i used to love the days where i could climb the sandy wall

  2. No matter which way this turns out, the taxpayers will be the losers. I well remember looking at the damage the storms had done to the parking lots and thinking that something needed to be done to slow or stop the erosion. What the long term or short term solutions are I don’t know. Maybe removing the rocks could cause even more erosion, maybe not. Will giving a large fine to the City solve the problem? One way or another tax dollars will pay for it. The lawyers will be laughing all the way to the bank.

    • Paul, Mark Massara had an interesting idea that didn’t make it into the story: that the city might create a sort of dedicated fund for the restoration of the beach, put money into it that otherwise might go the the Coastal Conservancy if the court orders the city to pay fines, and run it under the approval of the Coastal Commission. That might accomplish the cleanup that the California Coastal Protection Network seeks, and the money would go into the cleanup here instead of to some other project of the Conservancy that might be anywhere in the state. We’ll have to wait and see what the city’s initial response to the suit is, and what comes out of any legal haggling that might take place. The Bulletin will follow this as closely as we can.


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