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Retaining wall: Open Space article, by Britt Bailey

by Britt Bailey, Director
Environmental Commons

This Open Space article was published in the
Independent Coast Observer
on January 25, 2008.

There are a myriad of opinions with respect to Mr. John Bower’s proposal to build a retaining wall or retaining structure on the bluff in Gualala. Speaking for Environmental Commons, I’d like to clarify our reasons for opposing and appealing the project to the Board of Supervisors. First, let me provide some background.

The project in its entirety spans two parcels, the existing Surf Supermarket parcel and what we call the “old pharmacy parcel.” The whole project includes an expansion of the grocery store, demolition of the pharmacy and neighboring buildings, developing a paved parking lot, and constructing a 400′ bluff-face retaining structure/wall with associated drainage and septic improvements. A portion of the retaining structure behind the grocery store is a repair to an existing wall that failed. Since the Coastal Commission originally issued the permit for the failed retaining wall, they are considering this part of the project as an amendment to the original permit. Mendocino County is overseeing the new development including the additional 285-foot retaining structure.

So, why is Mr. Bower applying for the additional retaining structure? In most cases, retaining structures are used to stabilize a slipping bluff face. In the current situation, the bluff face itself is stable. Walk along the newly established bluff trail and you can see that mature vegetation exists and the bluff itself is not slipping. Even Mr. Bower’s engineer has confirmed that the bluff itself is stable.

If you look at the engineering plans, the project shows the retaining wall constructed up to 17 feet west of the current daily bluff edge. If permitted, Mr. Bower will gain usable land by encroaching into the Gualala River’s riparian corridor. Plants would be removed and fill would be added to create a new bluff in the hope the public trail easement would move west. By redefining the bluff edge, Mr. Bower would have more land for parking when the paved parking lot is developed.

Retaining walls/structures have been notoriously controversial in their use, particularly along the California Coast. Mendocino County’s Local Coastal Plan, for example, says, “development should not require the construction of protective devices that would substantially alter natural landforms along bluffs and cliffs.” Our Gualala Town Plan goes further requiring developers agree not to add bluff-face protective structures in the event the development is subject to natural hazards in the future. In both instances, the project would violate local regulations. Mr. Bower is proposing to construct a bluff or shoreline protective device, which would substantially alter natural landforms along the cliffs.

The building of a retaining structure to gain land towards the river is a fundamental issue the Mendocino Board of Supervisors will need to grapple with at the February 26th appeal hearing. Will the County allow Mr. Bower to create new land for future projects? We believe the applicant should conform his development to the existing constraints of his property.

In addition to local regulations, development projects are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) passed by the legislature in 1970. Its general policies stress that agencies regulate activities giving major consideration to preventing environmental damage, maintaining a quality environment, and taking all action to enhance the environment.

Environmental Commons questions the adequacy of Mendocino County’s initial environmental study required under CEQA. Specifically, CEQA mandates that environmental considerations “not be submerged by chopping a large project into many little ones” because examining the whole of a project in its entirety provides the best assessment of its cumulative environmental aspects. Proposing the retaining structure in one application without seeking a permit for the total project violates CEQA. So that the environmental impacts can be best understood, Environmental Commons would like to see the entire project evaluated in a thorough environmental study, as required by CEQA.

In closing, Environmental Commons applauds Mr. Bower’s vision for the Surf Center. We are in favor of opening the views to the ocean and controlling erosion from entering the river. We’re not opposed to developing a paved parking lot or creating additional square footage for the grocery store. That said, Environmental Commons believes in adequately interpreting our coastal planning policies and following the guidance of the California Environmental Quality Act. Our environmental laws are designed to keep our ecosystems as vital and intact as possible.

As proposed, Mr. Bower’s bluff face retaining structure violates local coastal policies and should not be permitted. It would permanently damage the coastal bluff that our coastal policies and California State laws are designed to protect. Environmental Commons would like to see our laws enforced to protect the natural beauty of our coast.

More information on the proposed “bluff structure.”