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Life on the Edge : Cliff Dwellers Struggle to Save Homes From Fury of Sea, Coastal Regulations

December 07, 1987|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

During the savage storms of Winter 1983, Carol Ashworth would sit in her roomy pink stucco home on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific in Leucadia and watch the sea go to war with the land.

As waves pounded at the base of the cliff like bazooka blasts, small chunks of earth at the top of the bluff would sometimes topple into the ocean, inches at a time. When the storm waves finally subsided, Ashworth figured she had lost about three feet of property to the sea, bringing her beloved house just that much closer to the brink.

Time to pack up and move on? Not a chance. Like lots of homeowners residing on the fragile cliffs lining San Diego County's northern coast, Ashworth is not about to be scared off by the whims of Mother Nature.

"It's not anything that I'm all shook up about," said Ashworth, a mother of seven and grandmother of three. "I worry more about having an accident on the freeway than about the ocean taking the bluffs out from under my house."

With the resolve of pioneers staking homesteads in an unfriendly land, residents along the crumbling coastal bluffs of North County are waging an increasingly difficult, high-stakes struggle with the sea. In recent years, property owners scattered up and down the coast have invested untold thousands of dollars to erect seawalls and other protective devices in hopes of armoring the shoreline against the assault of the waves.

Those efforts have escalated as the beaches that once served as a buffer between the cliffs and the sea have been stripped of sand. In many areas where the swells at one time crashed harmlessly hundreds of feet from the bluffs, the ocean now batters the land on nearly a daily basis. That barrage promises only to get worse as the winter storm season approaches.

While many might quake at the thought of living in a house perched on such potentially vulnerable real estate, this hardy band of coastal residents largely shrugs off the threat as an acceptable price to pay for the joy of having unsurpassed views and the ocean at their doorstep.

"You can't beat living on the bluff," said Orrin (Bud) Burwell, owner of a seafront home in Encinitas for two decades. "Every sunset is different than the one before. There's no smog. You generally don't hear anything except the surf. This time of year you can watch the whales, the porpoises, the surfers."

Like some of his neighbors, Burwell figures the ocean is not nearly so troublesome a foe as the state and local lawmakers who have passed regulations affecting the property on top of the bluff. The Encinitas City Council, for example, raised the ire of several coastal homeowners last month by adopting stricter regulations on construction activities atop the cliffs and approving a policy that requires homeowners to remove riprap boulders and other storm barriers once an emergency has passed.

"The idea that anything placed at the foot of a bluff to protect it during a storm must then be moved is both unacceptable and foolish," complained Dolores Mullane, a shoreline resident in Leucadia. "It will only add to the financial burden of trying to protect the bluff."

Protected or not, the bluffs and homes atop them will likely be one day claimed by the sea, many coastal experts say. Whether it will take centuries or one really big storm, nobody knows.

Most of the homes and condominiums atop the cliffs in North County were erected between 1947 and 1977, a period marked by very benign storms and little erosion along the coast. Lulled into a false sense of confidence, developers hammered together homes near the edge of the bluffs, figuring they had a stable platform that would stand the test of time.

Profound Threat?

In recent years, however, coastal experts have come to believe that bluff erosion poses a profound threat to the high-priced haciendas stretching along the seaboard. During periods of heavy storms and high wave activity, experts have observed undeveloped sections of bluff that eroded hundreds of feet inland in just a few days.

With the potential for such destruction, regulatory agencies such as the state Coastal Commission have firmed up development requirements, prohibiting new homes within 40 feet of the cliff edges.

Some local officials, meanwhile, now maintain that many of the bluff-top homes should never have been built. Like many of her peers, Solana Beach Councilwoman Celine Olson said coastal homeowners and lawmakers have inherited a vexing problem from the bureaucrats of yesteryear.

"They were too optimistic," Olson griped. "They thought they could beat Mother Nature, but Mother Nature has beaten them, I think."

Despite such sentiments, some bluff-top homeowners insist the seaside cliffs will weather the decades well. Burwell, for one, said the cliff in front of his home looks virtually the same as it did when he bought the property more than 20 years ago.

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