Close to Home: The Sonoma Coast’s ‘bridge to nowhere’
Peaceful little Gleason Beach is nestled midway between Bodega Bay and Jenner, hidden in a pastoral valley just north of the small communities of Carmet and Sereno del Mar, where Highway 1 crosses tiny Scotty Creek.
Its fate will come before the California Coastal Commission on Thursday, shortly after 9 a.m. in the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chambers.
Decades of unfortunate policy decisions and a few poorly sited crumbling homes once built atop unstable cliffs have led Caltrans to propose a 3,700-foot highway bypass with an 850-foot-long concrete bridge, all just to cross over seasonal Scotty Creek, a rivulet only a few feet wide most of the year.
The early history of the Sonoma Coast was one of small tribal villages until the Spanish and Russians sought riches here. Thus the sheltered coves along the coast gradually became transportation hubs for coastal sailing vessels. As early agricultural families decided to improve ancient game trails along the shoreline by building the first gravel wagon roads, they pursued a level path hugging the seaside along the clifftops. World War II brought the tangible fear of an enemy invasion of our county by sea, so urgent highway improvements enabled rapid access for a coastal defense that, fortunately, was never needed.
As the coast became a desirable second-home destination, large landowners near Gleason Beach apparently decided to subdivide cliffside lots into a skinny development between Highway 1 and the ocean.
As the individual cliffside septic systems serving these houses began to erode and fall away during large storms, concrete was pumped and dumped over the cliff, and homeowners tried to adapt by building a collective community septic leachfield on the east side of Highway 1. Although most of the houses once served by this system have now fallen down or been torn down, this antiquated septic leach line is being cited by Caltrans as the primary obstacle blocking the reasonable inland relocation of Highway 1.
Thus we find that our coast is facing the unfortunate unplanned consequences of several long-ago civil engineering missteps, combined with well-intentioned distant Caltrans engineers whose motto seems to be “Bigger is Better,” and for whom immense concrete bridges are the preferred design solution learned in school.
The California Coastal Commission is charged with seeking a preferred permit option for Caltrans to avoid irreversible adverse impacts as much as possible, but in cases where damage cannot be avoided, it's possible for the commission to require what is generally known as “compensatory mitigation.”
Toward the end of replacing lost public access opportunities, the Coastal Commission's hypothetical permit conditions propose requiring a segment of the California Coastal Trail to be built using a separate new pedestrian bridge crossing Scotty Creek seaward of the highway bridge structure.
Other draft conditions propose riparian restoration of at least part of the upper watershed of Scotty Creek once the box culverts that block fish passage under the present highway have been removed.
Finally, the draft permit proposes the dedication of approximately 50 acres to the west of the proposed bridge to Sonoma County for eventual public use. But Caltrans' proposal remains inconsistent with several longstanding Sonoma County Local Coastal Plan and Coastal Act priorities to protect environmentally sensitive habitat, preserve agricultural lands and avoid damage to coastal wetlands and marshes - all factors that would normally require the denial of the highway bridge permit by the Coastal Commission. But the commission staff is recommending approval.
At the commission's upcoming Santa Rosa hearing, it will be up to the public to judge whether the proposed mitigations and permit conditions for such a mega-project make up for the sacrifice of so many of the lost natural aspects of Gleason Beach and the Scotty Creek Valley as we have come to appreciate them over the decades.
While road maintenance on Highway 1 is obviously important, a workable highway realignment solution at Gleason Beach needs to be guided by peer-reviewed science, a local context for continued public beach access and the cooperative exercise of due care and respect for the unique sensitivity of this site's setting and environmental assets.
If we don't pay attention to local decisions like the one at Gleason Beach, we can easily lose our coast one beach, one valley, one giant overpass, at a time.
Richard Charter is a Senior Fellow with the Ocean Foundation. He lives in Bodega Bay.