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"What price growth...?"

State wrestles with policy to protect coastal lands

Seawalls may protect property, but they're considered a public blight

Hal Spencer; The Associated Press

OCEAN SHORES - The 850-foot seawall thrown up at Ocean Shores to protect condominiums from the Pacific Ocean would be illegal in at least four coastal states and was recently rejected as a solution by a fifth - Oregon.

North Carolina, South Carolina, Maine and Rhode Island "are making a concerted effort to save beaches for the next generation," said Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University geology professor and an expert on ways to preserve beaches in the face of human development.

Seawalls and other "hard solutions" to beach erosion are outlawed in those states because they destroy beaches, Pilkey said. Several other coastal states virtually ban "armoring," as the practice is called.

One of those states is Oregon, whose governor, John Kitzhaber, refused to bend state rules to save 32 luxury homes threatened by a sloughing dune at Oceanside.

Rejecting homeowners' panicky pleas in February for permission to build a 1,000-foot-long, 20-foot-high wave revetment, Kitzhaber says he told them that "I would under no circumstances issue them an emergency declaration" allowing the structure.

"I would have to do that for people up and down the coast and put a blemish on our public beaches," he said.

The homeowners are still trying to find a way to save their properties.

Washington desperately needs clearer policy on beach-erosion issues, says Sue Mauerman, a top official at the state Department of Ecology.

The state's 1971 Shoreline Management Act, intended to protect beaches from development, "was not written with erosion issues in mind," she said.

"Really, we haven't had a legislative or public discussion about these issues even as communities are having to face making very hard choices. These are real problems affecting real people," Mauerman said.

Gov. Gary Locke recognizes the need for clear policy, and is banking on a still-uncompleted $1 million study of beach erosion, begun last year, to lay a foundation, said his legislative aide, Marty Brown.

"The trouble is, we respond to emergencies with no overall view. That's not the way to do it," Brown said.

Pilkey said a basic flaw in Washington's environmental law is that it permits local communities to erect "temporary" barriers in an emergency.

These barriers usually become permanent, and set a precedent for more barriers.

"It is a worldwide truth that at the beach, every engineering project is an emergency," Pilkey said.

"Local input is a must, but state control is a must if long-term problems and the interests of tourists, surfers, clammers, environmentalists and others who use the beaches a day at a time are to be considered," he said.

Sue Patnude, Ocean Shores' city planner, said there is no reason local governments can't create policy to protect beaches - for all, not just waterfront-property owners.

Shoreside communities need to better understand the impermanence of shorelines, and plan accordingly, she said.

"We need to stop building on accreted land," she said - land recently created by sand deposits that is vulnerable to erosion as conditions change.

Associated Press

April 12, 1998

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