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California Coastal Commission OKs highway realignment on Sonoma Coast near Gleason Beach

The California Coastal Commission has unanimously granted Caltrans approval to realign Highway 1 on the Sonoma Coast, a $34 million project that will shift the roadway about 400 feet inland and create an 850-foot bridge spanning Scotty Creek, which flows to the ocean at a popular beach between Bodega Bay and Jenner.

In a hearing Friday, the 12-member commission and its staff acknowledged the structure’s imposing scale and inevitable alteration of the scenic viewshed but also praised the multiagency effort to produce a long-term solution to continued, rapid erosion of the bluffs.

“They’ve evaluated other alternatives,” said North Coast Commissioner Caryl Hart, a resident of Sonoma County and former director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “This is the least impactful alternative.”

The coastal edge is retreating at a rate of 12 to 14 inches a year along the blufftops at Gleason Beach. The erosion has destroyed or forced removal of at least a dozen homes while repeatedly compromising the southbound lane of Highway 1, already forcing Caltrans to shift the road inland by the width of a full lane.

The new project is designed to last through more than 100 years of rising sea levels and hastening erosion. Engineers have had to determine how to move the highway inland while also accounting for potential flooding, sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat in Scotty Creek, seismic stability, indigenous archaeological sites and other concerns, Caltrans said.

Building a structure that would span the entire valley between bluffs at a height of about 30 feet was deemed the best, most conservative solution.

The bridge, built to Caltrans standards with an eye toward providing pedestrian and bicycle access, will be 49 feet wide, substantially wider than the current road and the largest structure on the Sonoma Coast.

Many coastal residents and conservation groups continue to oppose the plan, however, and pleaded with commissioners to insist upon a different approach. They included Cea Higgins, a veteran advocate for the coast who now serves as executive director of Coastwalk and the California Coastal Trail Association.

“Residents of the Sonoma Coast naturally support a realignment and safe passage but ask for further consideration of a realignment of Highway 1 and alignment of the Coastal Trail that is more appropriate to this special location,” Higgins said, speaking on behalf of seven local conservation groups, as well as her own.

Longtime Bodega Bay activist Norma Jellison told commissioners the concrete bridge is to be erected across a “bucolic agricultural valley” that “is the last of its kind on the Sonoma Coast.” He said the area should not be allowed to “fall victim” to overengineering and a massive structure he believes is unnecessarily large.

Another speaker, Jenner-area resident Samuel Woodworth, said the project posed a threat to the “marvelous and magical nature of Scotty Beach,” given the “astonishingly out-of-scale … freeway-style bridge” planned for the area.

Commissioners and staff spoke of the need to find solutions in the face of changing geologic conditions and compromised infrastructure along the California coastline that will require innovation and compromise going forward. Hart cited a railroad in Southern California that is “about to drop into the ocean,” for instance. “We have these massive problems all the way up and down the coast.”

Hart was the one who moved to approve the permit, seconded by Commissioner Katie Rice, a Marin County supervisor. The vote was 9-0.

Approval from the commission, which oversees all development on the California coast, was necessary for Caltrans to move forward with the bidding process in time to begin construction next summer, as is hoped.

It’s expected to take two years to build the nearly ¾-mile stretch of realigned and elevated road, connecting it to the existing alignment at the end of that time, Caltrans Project Manager Lilian Acorda said.

A third year of work is scheduled for removal of box culverts that support the existing two-lane road, allowing habitat restoration in the lower reaches of Scotty Creek as well as improved public access around the creek in coordination with Sonoma County Regional Parks and other stakeholders.

Plans include a new parking area at Scotty Beach and conversion of some of the older highway to California Coastal Trail. A bicycle/pedestrian bridge across Scotty Creek also is to be built connecting the nubs of existing Highway 1 alignment, though eventually the land is expected to retreat inland, beyond that point.

Fort Bragg attorney Donne Brownsey, the commission’s vice chairwoman, said that her community had a fair amount of consternation about a similar bridge over Ten Mile River that was replaced in 2009 but said it was a bridge she always enjoyed driving over and, now, walking on, because of its views of the watershed.

“The reason that I’m so excited about this project, and the reason that I’m going to wholeheartedly support it, is, for me, it really shows that this group of partners faced reality about what was happening with this road and what needed to be done,” Brownsey said.

Hart noted that informal parking along the edge of Highway 1 at present is scarce and said there is currently no place to walk in the area or enjoy ocean views, as there will be once the project is built.

“There’s some real positives there,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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