Photo of Rental house threatened by erosion in Rockaway, by Scott Gilbert.

Rental house threatened by erosion in Rockaway, after recent storms. Photo by Scott Gilbert.

A controversial proposal for a major riprap installation in Rockaway came back into public view Jan. 12 when the city’s planning commission held a public hearing.  Developer Tai Dang applied last year for permission to armor the shoreline to protect his rental house from erosion.  He was turned down by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, 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 was well-attended, with all the speakers save the applicant’s lawyer speaking against the proposal–which means that they were supporting the city’s original decision.  The city planner, Ryan Crater, also urged the planning commission to uphold the decision not to allow riprap on the property.  Oregon Shores was there, represented by Executive Director Phillip Johnson. We had already provided the city with pre-hearing comments.

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 Tillamook County Pioneer covered the hearing, and their article includes a link to our complete testimony, developed with the Crag Law Center as part of our Coastal Law Project partnership.)  

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.
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 at what the city claims is the location it originally approved.  This is the matter that the applicant is appealing.

No one questions that erosion threatens the house, but Oregon Shores members and other opponents argued 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.