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By Shawn Raymundo
It was in May 1966 when a landslide destroyed a series of single-family homes that once sat atop a coastal bluff just south of T-Street. A large block had slid on a clay seam roughly 52 feet below the ground surface, causing the destruction of the homes.
In the 50-plus years since the devastating landslide, the lots have sat vacant but not necessarily unused. Over the years, the bluff located at the end of the cul-de-sac on La Rambla has become widely known to locals as a lookout spot and entry point to get to the Beach Trail.
The property has changed hands over the years, with various developers hoping to build new single-family homes. A few had been successful in gaining approval from the city; however, the California Coastal Commission has been a tougher hurdle to clear.
The most recent attempt came in 2010, when five property owners looked to develop homes on as many vacant lots. After receiving city approval, their application went before the CCC in 2011. That application, however, was never completed, according to the commission.
For about the past decade, the bluff property has remained idle. That was until this year, when new property owners submitted plans to the city to construct seven homes.
The proposed homes, according to city filings, are to be three stories and average about 6,077 square feet of living space. The development of the homes would also require the use of stabilization methods by implementing caissons to support the foundation.
City officials have emphasized, though, that the current proposal is in the very early stages of its review process and that it’s subject to environmental challenges, city approval and then, ultimately, CCC approval.
“We are the first step the applicant needs to go through . . . ultimately, this will need to be approved by the city council, and after approval, then it will also need to go through the Coastal Commission process for review,” said City Planner Gabriel Perez.
But also standing in the way of the already uphill battle that awaits the most recent developer is a group of residents determined to maintain the bluff as a lookout and easement for the public. The group, Save SC Bluff, has argued that such developments would visually disrupt the natural look of a site that has become a local attraction to enjoy views of the coast.
Though the project is in the early stages of the application process, Paul Douglas, the project manager for the latest proposal, boasts about the architectural design and concept of the seven prospective homes.
“The design of the project is really top-shelf . . . absolutely terrific design, very, very first-class architecture and landscape design; very expensive homes to build,” Douglas said, gushing about the proposed development. He added that “they’re really seven custom homes. Each lot is a different design, and each lot has a different palate.”
Two of the lots, Douglas said, are designated to go to the two property owners, who intend to sell the remaining five homes.
Included in the project is also a proposal to implement several public easements across each lot, so the public can continue to have access to the beach, as well as provide a public lookout area for visitors—conditions that had been previously outlined in the abandoned 2010/2011 project.
“We have offered a public access easement right down to the sand . . . and we’ve also included a public lookout at the very top of the project,” Douglas said. “So, the access of the lookout is provided for in the design.”
In the Project Narrative filed with the application to the city, the owners are also seeking a road abandonment, proposing that the city turn over an uncompleted portion of La Rambla to the owners. The abandoned street, the narrative states, would be absorbed into the properties.
Citing city records, Stephanie Roxas, the city’s project planner, noted that La Rambla, which currently ends at the cul-de-sac right before the bluff starts, is supposed to be longer.
“The applicant is proposing not to build that (street) and requesting from the city a street abandonment, meaning that this unused piece of property gets turned over to the adjoining owners,” Roxas said.
And just like the previous applications that had come before it, the latest project also requires foundational support by implementing a series of caissons—columns built deep into the ground that are intended to stabilize structures in the event of landslides and earthquakes.
Touching on the overall history of the site and the fact that it’s been sold multiple times over the years, Roxas noted the biggest challenge in developing the site.
“There are environmental challenges, because it would require significant work to make it a developable site,” Roxas said. “Because when you’re dealing with loss from when ground eroded from this landslide, you have to demonstrate that this site is safe to build on.”
While caissons are meant to stabilize properties, Roxas said that such reinforcement techniques have their own set of challenges, as they could potentially be detrimental to other lots in the vicinity.
“For example, what happens in our coastal bluff lots, sometimes there are issues with the foundation, and they come to the city wanting to repair or put in caissons … Once you add those improvements to fix one lot, it could degrade the rest of the coastal bluff and possibly create a domino effect in terms of affecting other lots,” she said.
Expounding on Roxas’ explanation, Perez added that the developer will have to demonstrate they can construct homes on the site and address hazards on the bluff. A major part of the review process, he also said, will make sure the project is consistent with the city’s Coastal Land Use Plan, as well as with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
“Since we are in the initial phase, we will be reviewing all of that with all of the departments in the city, and so we’ll also need to make the findings that the project is consistent with (CEQA),” he said, later stating: “We have our Coastal Land Use Plan, and we have to make sure this project is consistent with those policies and there are policies that govern the development on bluff tops.”
A Proposal Withdrawn
At the city level, there is already a precedent set when it comes to approving applications for the site.
In fact, much of the current project harkens back to that 2010 project, which had gained the approval of the city but had hit a roadblock when it went before the Coastal Commission in February 2011.
According to a Coastal Commission report on the 2010/2011 project, CCC staff had recommended approval of the application with a series of special conditions, or caveats, meant to address concerns with landslide hazards, as well as the protection of public rights to access.
“There are several constraints associated with the development of the subject site,” the report stated. “These constraints include the need to reserve areas to accommodate the existing and historic public use of the properties for public access and viewing and the need to address adverse geologic conditions on the property.”
In the report, the CCC notes that “no portion of the site can be developed without significant geologic stabilization measures.” The previous applicant, the report added, had considered several different methods to stabilize the site.
In the end, the proposed solution was “an array of caissons, shear pins, and caisson-supported walls, to remove unsuitable landslide material” on a couple of the lots. It went on to add that the stabilization relied on drilling about 200 caissons to “pierce the clay seam that is the greatest contributor to slope instability.”
During what was an hours-long hearing on the matter back on Feb. 9, 2011, many of the Coastal commissioners expressed concerns with the project, citing erosion as a factor and potential hazards. One commissioner also disagreed with the staff’s belief that the project would have adequately provided similar coastal access to the public as it currently does.
After those concerns were voiced, the applicants agreed to withdraw the proposal to potentially address the issues commissioners had raised during the meeting.
According to the CCC, that application was never completed.
David York, the architect for that proposal, explained to San Clemente Times that the owners of the property eventually sold the land after experiencing financial problems that prevented them from pursuing the proposal further.
“We were getting close to setting something, but everybody ran out of money, and that was the end of it,” York said when asked what happened after that CCC meeting. He added, “It was just not a good time; it was back when everything was crashing . . . the market turned down, so new projects were put on hold.”
According to the CCC, staff had a pre-application meeting with the new property owners last year.
Asked whether he included any solutions in the application to address the previous concerns of the CCC, Douglas said he has, noting that the development will still rely on the use of caissons, which “clearly address the issue” of potential landslides.
Back in 2011, one of the loudest voices opposed to the proposed development was a group of San Clemente residents. Now with the proposal under the city’s review, the group has been revived. Using the website, savescbluff.org, the group looks to prevent another project on the landslide.
“Our mission is to raise awareness about this potential development, prevent the loss of the public’s established use of this property for over 50 years, and help avoid the devastating impact this proposed development would have on the San Clemente coastline, given the historic instability of the bluff,” the group’s website states.
For group members including Lee Strother, they share similar concerns with those Coastal Commissioners from 2011. Strother said he believes the site should be preserved as is—as coastal lookout and beach access—and that there are several geological issues that can’t be addressed with caissons.
“Even if (caissons are) put in, it’s not necessarily stable, nor do they prevent natural erosion which could expose them,” Strother said.
Describing the look of other coastal bluffs north of the San Clemente Pier, where homes have been built using caissons for stabilization, Strother said “the exposed caissons and other bluff protection for the developments end up looking ugly and its terrible … it’s visually disruptive of what should be natural.”
Furthermore, Strother touched on the history of the bluff, noting that it’s been used for decades by the public and should remain a coastal access point, untouched by the development of homes.
“The property has been used for over 40 years as a beach access, a viewing point … when you look at Laguna Beach, they have, let’s call them, a necklace of jewels which are their coastal parks that have great viewing sites,” Strother said, comparing this San Clemente bluff location to one such as Crescent Bay Point Park in the neighboring beach town.
Douglas acknowledged the concerns of Save SC Bluff, stating that he intends to meet with members of the group and other stakeholders after the city has completed its first review of the project.
“They have some legitimate concerns with the easement to the beach, and we addressed that . . . and they have a legitimate concern with the lookout, and we’re going to provide that,” Douglas said. “I think their concerns are legitimate, and we’re going to respond accordingly.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.