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Highway 1 realignment project prompts Caltrans purchase of Scotty Creek Beach on Sonoma Coast

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A popular section of Sonoma Coast beach at the mouth of Scotty Creek, midway between Bodega Bay and Jenner, is about to become part of the Sonoma County Regional Park system.

Though open to public use for decades despite its private ownership, public acquisition of the property guarantees free, open access into the future, officials said.

But buying the land was also a necessary step in long-delayed plans to elevate and realign Highway 1 through the area in order to move traffic away from the rapidly retreating bluff tops just to the north of Scotty Creek Beach, above Gleason Beach.

Caltrans’ realignment project — once estimated at $20 million, though that was six years ago — includes construction of an 850-foot-long bridge across the Scotty Creek floodplain, 400 feet inland from the coastline.

That’s a substantial change from the current condition, in which the road runs right down to the level of the beach and people park on the shoulder, jump out and are on the sand in moments.

In support of the California Coastal Act, which prioritizes public access to the coastline, the California Coastal Commission is requiring Caltrans to facilitate public acquisition of the beach to ensure that moving the highway away from the coast did nothing to diminish the ease with which the public could get out on the land there, Sonoma County Planner Gary Helfrich said.

The relatively level topography at the site also makes the beach easier to get to than most, without stairs or steep trails to climb, he said.

“Our local coastal plan identifies this as our last opportunity to provide people with disabilities access to the beach because the road dips right down to the sand level at Scotty Beach,” Helfrich said.

When the realignment project is built, the existing roadway won’t entirely be abandoned, but will be reconfigured into a parking area at the edge of the beach and provide access to several homes that remain on higher ground to the north. Any limited improvements decided upon later, once the county has an opportunity to seek public input and conduct planning, will more likely be possible under county ownership, as well.

“If you’ve ever been out there in the summer, this has always been a popular access point,” Helfrich said. “This is going to allow us to fully develop the access there.”

The beach acquisition is part of a nearly decade-long effort to move the highway inland, away from the edge of a crumbling cliff that is eroding at an average rate of 14 inches a year — perhaps the fastest in the state.

Twelve bluff-top homes at the edge of the highway have collapsed or been removed since heavy El Niño rains in 1998 undercut the cliff enough to highlight the severity of the situation, leaving the cliffside littered with debris from homes and concrete armaments that failed to work. Two more homes are red-tagged, deemed unsafe to occupy.

The edge of the coast came so close the highway that it began to buckle and crack. Caltrans finally closed the southbound lane of traffic last year, so unsafe had it become.

Caltrans personnel were not available Tuesday to discuss the status of the realignment project, but Helfrich said the agency hoped to have its full permit application considered at the California Coastal Commission’s June 10-12 meeting in Rohnert Park.

In the meantime, the beach acquisition is one item off the checklist.

It took years for Caltrans to negotiate the purchase from retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis McAllister and his family, who eventually agreed to sell 0.65 acres of beach to the state agency for $144,000.

Though the county will not directly pay for the land, Caltrans will deduct $64,000 from a more than $5.2 million mitigation package negotiated with county officials for park development, streambed restoration, coastal trail development, beach access improvements and the like.

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday approved receipt of the property title on behalf of the regional park system, which will be finalized in a matter of days, Sonoma County Regional Parks Project Manager Ken Tam said. County parks will conduct master planning after the Caltrans project is built, Tam said.

McAllister, who has lived for more than 50 years in a home built by his grandfather at the edge of the beach, had the rare opportunity to own a piece of Sonoma Coast beach for that time.

But he said he’s never had problems with others using it.

“Occasionally there’s people doing things in my front yard I don’t approve of, but it’s not usually an issue,” McAllister said.

Part of the initial hold-up in cutting a deal with Caltrans was that the agency wanted at first to buy his house and two adjacent dwellings owned by the family, and he wasn’t willing to sell.

The California Coastal Conservancy owns 2.9 acres of beach north of the former McAllister property, though it’s generally a rockier, steeper stretch.

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

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