Rockaway Planning Commission Hears Another Appeal of Riprap Decision

January 29, 2016

The controversial proposal for a major riprap installation in Rockaway came back into public view on Tuesday, Jan. 26, when the city’s planning commission held its second public hearing on the issue. Developer Tai Dang applied last year for permission to armor the shoreline to protect his rental house from erosion. Oregon Shores, along with many local residents, opposed the application. It was turned down by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD), based in large part on the City of Rockaway Beach’s declaration that the structure’s location violated the city’s comprehensive plan.

The appeal of this administrative decision that the property did not qualify for riprap was held by the City of Rockaway Planning Commission on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The session at city hall was well-attended and even raucous. Oregon Shores was there, in the person of attorney Courtney Johnson of our Coastal Law Project (a partnership with the Crag Law Center) to oppose the developer (which in this case means supporting the city’s earlier decision); we also filed our pre-hearing comments with the city.  There was an earlier hearing, on Jan. 12. Mr. Dang’s attorney requested a continuance (in what we strongly suspect is a ploy to outlast the opposition and have the last word).

After the developer claimed that his property had to be declared eligible for riprap under Statewide Land Use Planning Goal 18, a position with which Oregon Shores is in complete disagreement, we requested and received a seven-day additional continuance. During this period members of the public can send comments to the city planning staff.

To comment, e-mail the Rockaway Beach Planning Commission at [email protected], or write to the Planning Commission c/o Terri Michel, Planning Staff, 276 Hwy 101 S., Rockaway Beach, OR 97136.

This is a significant case, not just for Rockaway but for the Oregon shoreline. The question isn’t just whether one stretch of Rockaway’s shore will be armored, but whether the state’s rules intended to maintain a natural shoreline will be honored.

Oregon Shores urges that opponents make three basic points:

  1.  If riprap is allowed at this location, it will deflect waves onto neighboring properties and up Saltair Creek, harming these property owners.  The house for which the developer is seeking protection clearly violates the city’s Ocean Setback Line.  It would not be fair to make an exception for this individual and thus harm other residents who have played by the rules.
  2. A major riprap structure such as the one proposed will project out onto the public beach.  Even now, it might create a barrier to those walking along the beach at the highest tides.  As sea level continues to rise and storm surges become more pronounced due to climate change, an artificial peninsula like this might become a barrier to north-south passage even at ordinary tides.
  3. Most important, allowing riprap here would violate the spirit of Oregon’s Land Use Planning Goal 18, which is intended to prevent the spread of hardened shoreline structures up and down the coast.  The house in question doesn’t meet either the basic criterion of Goal 18 (only structures built before Jan. 1, 1977 qualify for armoring) or the criteria for the City of Rockaway Beach’s special exception area.  Goal 18 was intended both to protect the public interest in the shoreline, and to serve as a “stop sign” warning property owners against developing in risky area.  Mr. Dang ran right through this stop sign, and should not be allowed to get away with it.  By upholding the correct decision by city planning staff that the property does not qualify for riprap, the city will be defending not only its own interests but the interests of all Oregonians by preserving the clear intention of Goal 18.

Some background:  Along with many Rockaway residents who spoke out on the issue, Oregon Shores won a rare denial of an application for shoreline armoring (riprap) last June when OPRD, which has jurisdiction over shoreline alterations that would affect the public beach, denied Tai Dang’s application outright.  At the request of members and CoastWatchers in the area, Oregon Shores actively opposed the riprap application, testifying at the public hearing and filing detailed comments. We had plenty of company. Nearly 30 people showed up, and 13 testified in opposition.

The request for a riprap permit was for a two-story, 3,300-square-foot home at 211 S. 6th St., just south of Saltair Creek. The home serves as a vacation rental, and attracts complaints from neighbors as a “party house.” Tai Dang, the owner, sought permission to construct a 14-feet-tall-by-81-feet-long riprap wall along a dune in front of his lot, claiming that the shoreline at the border of his lot has been eroding at a rate of three feet per year for the past two decades.  (Note that this means, by his own testimony, that he was well aware of the erosion risks when he built the house.)

OPRD, which manages Oregon’s public shoreline, is charged with issuing permits based on its own regulations and on consistency with statewide planning goals. Goal 18 of Oregon’s land use planning laws requires that to qualify for shoreline protection, a property must have been developed before 1977 (although there is provision for emergency permits when more recent structures are threatened). State Parks defines “developed” as meaning that utilities were extended to the street where a parcel is located by that year; opponents of riprap proposals are often surprised to find that lots that were vacant until recently nevertheless qualify for riprap under this interpretation.

The house in question was built in 2008, but might have qualified as being on a developed lot. However, after we requested the hearing on the application, the City of Rockaway Beach retracted its initial determination that the project was consistent with its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. While the threat to the house from erosion may be real, if the house was constructed in a location that violated the city’s plan, it would not qualify for protection. When built, the house was to be located behind the city’s Ocean Setback Line, which would have qualified it as conforming with Rockaway’s Goal 18 “exception area.” It now appears, according to the city’s administrative decision, that the house was built much closer to the edge than the smaller structure it was to replace. Erosion would not currently be a threat if it had been built on the location the city thought it was approving.  This is the matter that the applicant is appealing.

No one questions that erosion threatens the house, but Oregon Shores members and other opponents argue that the public shouldn’t lose part of its beach to protect a structure that should not have been built in that location. Moreover, neighbors are concerned that an armored shoreline in front of this lot will deflect waves and cause erosion on neighboring properties (including a public beach access) and possibly further up Saltair Creek. Evidently these arguments prevailed, although the OPRD decision does not specify the reasons.  Testimony against the application at the OPRD hearing last June by knowledgeable local residents was solidly factual and credible, and might have been sufficient to persuade OPRD to deny the proposal even without the city’s decision that the property didn’t qualify.

We celebrated a victory at the time, but anticipated correctly that Tai Dang would appeal (although he took a surprisingly long time to do so).  Should the Rockaway planning commission deny his appeal, it is likely that he will appeal further (to the city council, and ultimately the courts), just as it is likely that opponents will appeal should the commission find in his favor.  Should he eventually prevail on the question of whether the property is eligible for riprap under the city’s plan, he could then appeal to OPRD for a reversal of their decision.  Oregon Shores will continue to work to protect this stretch of shoreline from armoring, and to preserve the integrity of Goal 18.