California Coastal Commission postpones Highway 1 realignment vote
A drive on the south Sonoma Coast takes visitors past impossibly beautiful ocean vistas, rocky shorelines and crashing waves, but the coastline could soon include an imposing new feature - a broad concrete bridge spanning Scotty Creek between Bodega Bay and Jenner.
The 850-foot-long bridge is part of a three-quarter-mile realignment project meant to move Highway 1 at Gleason Beach inland by 400 feet - Caltrans' solution to the crumbling cliffside that undermines the roadway on its current route at the continent's edge.
But even after years of meetings and draft sketches of how the coastal highway might one day look, many in the region still are coming to terms with the scale of what's proposed and its impact on the view and surrounding landscape.
Some planned to air their concerns about the project this week during a meeting of the California Coastal Commission at what is the first - and very possibly, the last - public hearing on the project. But Monday, the commission, at the behest of Caltrans, postponed the hearing to allow “more time to address new information and community concerns in order to move the project forward.”
No new hearing date was set.
The California Coastal Commission will still hold three days of meetings this week - Wednesday, Thursday and Friday - in the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chambers. Residents can voice their opinions about the Gleason Beach project during public comment sessions on any of those three days.
“The Sonoma Coast deserves better,” said Richard Charter, a nearby resident of Bodega Bay and longtime coastal steward who serves as senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation. “Once it's in, it's just going to be there, and nobody can do anything about it.”
Public officials recognized the plan conflicts with land-use principles embedded in the California Coastal Act and Sonoma County's own coastal land-use policies, which prioritize the coast's scenic and visual qualities, among other protected resources.
But Caltrans and Coastal Commission staffers say the proposal is the least environmentally damaging of 20 viable options for the site, where the landscape dips down to the creek at ocean level and crosses actively grazed ranchlands, wetland areas, Native American archaeological sites and a stream historically populated by endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout.
Caltrans hopes to begin construction next spring and finish the project in two years, spokesman Alejandro Lopez said. The agency at one point projected the cost of the roadway work would be $20 million, though no updated estimate was available.
State agencies proposed an extensive list of conditions and measures meant to offset interference with the view and ensure sensitive wildlife habitat and recreational attributes aren't damaged.
They include a $10 million mitigation package, negotiated with Sonoma County planning officials, that would result in a new 40- to 50-acre park and coastal trail segment, beach access improvements, stream and habitat restoration, and a dedicated bike/pedestrian bridge across Scotty Creek. It also includes cleaning up huge chunks of houses and concrete shed by the eroding cliff over the past two decades, as landowners frantically sought to stave off the inevitable loss of bluff-top homes that began falling into the ocean in 1998.
Though contingent on funding approvals by the California Transportation Commission, the proposed project is “a big win-win-win opportunity to finally clean up this section of the coast,” Sonoma County planner Gary Helfrich said.
Public officials, in fact, identified the plan as a model of the cooperative efforts that will be required in the future to address the threat of erosion on public infrastructure up and down the California coast.
“This realignment project is an adaptation success story for California as it results in relocating critical infrastructure inland, restoring shoreline areas to their natural state, and otherwise allowing natural processes along this stretch of coast to continue and reach their natural equilibrium,” the Coastal Commission staff report stated.
But Helfrich acknowledged the resulting project “is going to be more significant than people can get their heads around.”
At 850 feet long, 49 feet wide and 30 feet tall, he said, “it's going to be the largest structure on the Sonoma County coast.”
Perhaps no one is more aware of that fact than Phil and Roberta Ballard, UC San Francisco pediatrics professors whose ranch home soon will look out directly at the elevated highway as it crosses their land.
Apparently resigned to that prospect, the Ballards have petitioned Caltrans for minor adjustments, such as eliminating a 6-foot sidewalk on the span's west side to minimize its mass. They're also seeking access to grazing areas and additional attention to roadside parking and its effect on traffic. But they're most concerned with the restoration of Scotty Creek.
Helfrich said there may be little choice but to build the project, given the erosion that's causing the cliff to retreat about 14 inches a year, a rate projected to increase.
The cliff's disintegration already is responsible for the collapse or removal of 12 bluff-top homes in the area over the past two decades. Two more are red-tagged and another is failing.
But Charter and others said the public has had too little opportunity to understand and weigh in on the final proposal, despite a handful of meetings held by Caltrans in Bodega Bay over the past four years leading up to the issuance April 25 of the commission staff report.
The county, which would normally hold a hearing of its own, waived the need last month, consolidating its permit process with the Coastal Commission in an effort to shave two years off the process and expedite funding and construction.
“Those of us who have been monitoring this project for over a decade are concerned that the public has been given too little notice that this issue is being heard, and their opportunity for comment greatly reduced when the county and the CCC (California Coastal Commission) consolidated the permit,” said Cea Higgins, executive director of Coastwalk California.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Roberta Ballard. She and her husband now live full time at their Gleason Beach ranch.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.