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Homeowners Fear Losing Property Over 'Managed Retreat' Policies To Address Sea Level Rise

by Susie Steimle and Abigail Sterling

PACIFICA (KPIX 5) -- Cities up and down the California coast are grappling with a looming crisis:  How to deal with rising sea levels. By 2100, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts some 600,000 homes will be at risk of flooding. While the state Coastal Commission wants to let nature take its course, homeowners are fighting back.


Though he lives on the coast Jeff Guillet has never worried about sea level rise. But last fall all that changed when the city of Pacifica put out a draft of a local coastal plan that includes something called "managed retreat." In essence, it means homeowners and businesses could be moved away from the shore to give rising tides more room.

Pacifica's plan reads "The city shall establish and pursue funding of a managed retreat program ... for voluntary removal, modification or relocation of development when necessary." For Guillet that means live here at your own risk. "We started researching it and it started looking more and more scary," said Guillet.

He says managed retreat could mean he would not be able to hold the city liable for any damage to his home in the event of a flood, and if he sells it, he would have to disclose that it's in a hazard zone. "So what that means is home values are going to drop," said Guillet.

Some of his neighbor have already given up. "Both houses on both sides of me have moved, to Reno and Arizona because partially of this issue," said Guillet.

The Coastal Commission wants every coastal city in California to adopt a managed retreat plan in what is currently defined as the "coastal zone". In Pacifica the line is drawn at state Highway 1. Every property west of the highway, including Guillet's home, would no longer get protection.

"The Coastal Commission made it very clear that the city needed to evaluate managed retreat as an alternative," said Pacifica City Manager Kevin Woodhouse. But he says the city is trying to avoid that option. "The strategies recommended are basically sea walls and protections, barriers like that, and beach replenishment, sand replenishment, but not managed retreat," said Woodhouse.

It may not be that simple though, because the city's local coastal plan has to be approved by the Coastal Commission, including senior engineer Lesley Ewing. "We can let external forces take control of California or we can take control of it to an extent ourselves."

Ewing points to what happened in Pacifica after several El Niño winters just three years ago, when 30 feet of bluff, apartment buildings included, came tumbling down into the ocean. "That type of unmanaged retreat is something that I don't think anybody wants to see," said Ewing.

Ewing says sea walls continue to be an option under managed retreat, however the Commission will only grant them in limited circumstances because they're only a temporary fix that accelerates beach loss.

Many new developments and even major remodels in the coastal zone are already having to waive the right to armor the shore. But they're not doing it without a fight.

"Certainly if you are a landowner who has a home along the beautiful coastline here in California, I think you might think it is quite drastic, in fact you might think it's unconstitutional," said Damien Schiff. He's a senior attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that helps defend property rights along the coast.

"In our own Bill of Rights it says that one of the rights that is fundamental is the right to use and to protect one's private property," said Schiff. His foundation is helping property owners in Solana Beach and Marin County sue to stop managed retreat plans.

Pacifica appears to be taking note. "Oftentimes things do get resolved in the courts, so that is one course of action," said city manager Kevin Woodhouse. But Woodhouse acknowledges there may be some new zoning regulations, not for all the coastal zone and not for Guillet's neighborhood, but possibly along the city's already defined hazard zone, right along the bluff.

Guillet is not reassured by that. "It still has the same effect as managed retreat they are just not calling it that," he said. "It is our home and it's not fair that they should impose any kind of restrictions on us."

The city of Pacifica submitted its first sea level rise plan last year. The Coastal Commission came back with revisions. Then Pacifica re-submitted with some compromise changes. Now the ball is in the Coastal Commission's court.

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