Where’d They Put the Ocean? Sprawl obstructs views, pollutes beaches and mars Oregon’s scenic shoreline

By  Paul Koberstein

PACIFIC CITY — All year long, surfers ride the waves at this small Tillamook County town, one of Oregon’s most popular beachfront resorts.

Haystack Rock, the tallest of three towers by that name on the Coast, stands offshore, with the scenic dunes of Cape Kiwanda circling around to the north. At the Pelican Inn brewpub on the beach, patrons soak up these breathtaking views with their award-winning ales.

Not many years ago, the surfers shared Pacific City with its famous dory fishing fleet, often camping for days in the county parking lot at the beach without any trouble. But now tourists have discovered Pacific City. The parking lot is often full, even with an extra 40 spots added this year.

Like numerous places on the Coast, Pacific City is in the throes of a real estate boom. Open spaces up and down the Coast are giving way to new condos, hotels, second homes and mansions. In Pacific City alone, some $40 million worth of projects are in the works.

One such project, a new hotel, is emerging on the beachfront dunes in front of Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock. This development may contribute to the local economy by providing jobs, but critics say it will come at an unacceptable price.  

Millions of tourists travel to the Coast every year to take in the sights, spending millions of dollars along the way. Would they be so eager to visit favorite views that have been altered like the dunes at Cape Kiwanda? Some are worried.  

“It’s one of the most photographed scenes on the Oregon Coast,” says Phillip Johnson, director of the Coastwatch program operated by the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition. “And now people are going to have some condo-looking excrescences right in their viewfinders. This kind of thing degrades the coastal experience of countless thousands of people to benefit a few.”  

In other words, if you ever intended to shoot pictures here one day and didn’t want a shiny new hotel in the frame, you’re too late.

“Scenic views are an important part of the coastal economy,” says Cameron LaFollette, a land-use activist with 1000 Friends of Oregon, another opponent of the Cape Kiwanda condos. Three groups — 1000 Friends, Oregon Shores, Oregon Shores and the Oregon Downtown Development Association — have launched the Oregon Coastal Futures campaign to promote better stewardship of coastal lands.

“None of the coastal counties take the views into consideration when they issue building permits,” says Bob Bailey, who heads the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development’s Coastal Program. “Nor are there any state laws to prevent a developer from altering the priceless views. One of the undone things in protecting the Oregon Coast is protecting the view,”.

Some say sprawl is transforming the Coast’s natural character into something that looks more like a certain state to the south of Oregon.

 “Having condos built up close to the edge of the bluff will turn an extraordinary part of the Oregon Coast into just more of the same over-development which people expect of California, but — at least until recently — didn’t expect here,” says Fran Recht of the Oregon Shores coalition.

Recht, a former member of the Depoe Bay Planning Commission, says communities are so eager to please developers they forget about the qualities that make the Coast special, like the views.

This summer in Depoe Bay, developers completed a condo project next to Boiler Bay State Park. Another, larger project has been built next door. The two projects form an almost solid wall and behind the wall the ocean disappears. The projects, with their massive parking lots, resemble a typical apartment complex in Portland’s suburbs and seem totally out of place in the coastal environment.

They hug the rugged, basalt-rimmed surf. One of the projects destroyed a rare shoreline bog. Close by, a short, rough trail takes hikers to what are said to be some of Oregon’s richest tidepools. From there, the hikers can take in stunning views of migrating and resident gray whales — not to mention a slice of the suburbs.

Sprawl, the low-density homes and businesses outside cities, is rapidly redefining the U.S. 101 corridor along the Coast in other ways: polluting the beaches, threatening ecologically sensitive areas, emerging among landslide prone shoreline dunes and cliffs. It is fueled by an influx of retirees, trust funders and vacation-home buyers, and is showing no sign of slowing down.

As the Pew Oceans Commission noted in a major report two years ago, “If we are to protect coastal ecosystems, constraining sprawl is not just an option, it’s a necessity.”  

In Tillamook County, the Coast’s fastest growing county, almost all new development is sprawling outside the cities. Between 1990 and 2004, Tillamook County grew by nearly 16 percent, according to the U.S. Census. More than 70 percent of this growth went outside the cities.

From 2000 to 2004, nearly 79 percent of its growth was outside cities. Coastwide, nearly 33 percent of the growth is outside cities, and it’s about 9 percent statewide. These figures do not count the substantial seasonal population growth that results from the development of vacation homes and resorts in rural areas.  

Oregon’s land-use system was designed 30 years ago to prevent sprawl by focusing new development inside cities. But on the Coast, where land-use regulations are weakest in the state, according to the watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon, the land-use system just encourages sprawl.

Some 80,000 acres of coastal counties are rural land that can be legally converted to suburban subdivisions. These lands are within rural “urban growth boundaries” and are large enough to contain a one-half mile wide strip of homes on both sides of Highway 101, stretching for about one third of the entire Coast, says Bob Stacey, executive director of 1000 Friends.

The sites in highest demand are those closest to the beach. Geologists say many of these sites have been and will continue collapsing due to erosion. The owners of these properties are pressuring local governments to allow them to protect these sites by installing riprap along the shore. Riprap unusually consists of large boulders placed at the base of dunes and cliffs. Studies show riprap destroys beaches.

Sprawl is also threatening sensitive lands, like the barely touched Sand Lake estuary in Tillamook County which developers are eying as a potential private golf resort, as well as a place to build condos and a restaurant. Most of the North Coast at one time was heavily forested with Sitka spruce, which in Oregon is at the southern extent of its range.

About 80 percent of the North Coast spruce forests have been lost, according to the Oregon Natural Heritage Information Center at Oregon State. Sitka spruce forests are being converted to residential homes around the towns of Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Tillamook, Lincoln City, Newport and points in between.  

One of the largest new developments on the Coast is a subdivision of 200 houses going in at Netarts. The land has been clearcut, though construction has yet to begin. “The urban growth boundary is pretty large around Netarts,” says Allison Asbjornsen, a Netarts resident, as well as president of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition.

“Our sewage plant under a lot of pressure already — this is adding more than half again to the sewage sy tem. This is a big problem.” She says coastal residents can contact their county planning departments to find out how large their local urban growth boundaries are, and if necessary should try to reduce their size.

Another development, known as Sahhali Shores in Neskowin, would encircle Neskowin Marsh, a unique 175-acre freshwater wetland that includes the southernmost coastal sphagnum bog habitat on the Pacific Coast. It is located next to the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

“It is being fought by people in Neskowin, but it’s going to be tough, because it’s inside the community growth boundary,” LaFollete says. The Nature Conservancy tried to buy about 75 acres of the site and transfer the site to the wildlife refuge but was not successful.

Nearby, an existing development known as Sahhali North “has already ruined a stretch of beach, and this would be much worse,” she says.

Near Pacific City, a development known as Nantucket Shores is under construction next to Cape Kiwanda. A sign promises a gated community with private beach access, a private lake, and a gated community. The developer’s brochure urges potential buyers to “come see one of America’s remaining jewels and join the rare few who have seen its potential.”

These developments, LaFollette says, “show the change in many new projects: expensive housing, usually for second homes, and not affordable to most coastal residents” Oregon’s land-use system has slowed the pace of sprawl, but is not capable of halting it, says Bailey of the Department of Land Conservation and Development.  

The 2004 passage of Ballot Measure 37 in Oregon may further weaken the Coast’s land-use protections. A property owner can now seek a building permit even if current zoning rules disallows it, so long as the rules were put in place after the owner purchased the property. If the local government denies the permit, the property owner can try to collect compensation. If Measure 37 developments are allowed, more sprawl is likely.  

People are using Measure 37 to take advantage of opportunities to build big subdivisions on the oceanfront. One property owner in Lincoln County wants to use Measure 37 to build a subdivision on rural land, and in Tillamook County another owner would build condos on some 80 acres in a dairy farming area next to Nestucca Bay.

“The Coast has not yet had a big number of claims like Washington or Yamhill Counties. But as time passes there will be more claims that severely damage both farmland in coastal counties such as Tillamook County, and scenic beauty along the shoreline,” LaFollette says.

Oregon’s land-use system is based on 19 goals that steer development toward cities and away from farms, forest, estuaries and shoreline. On the Coast, however, some of these goals are routinely disregarded, such as one requiring counties to inventory and where possible to protect open space. County officials say they lack funding to pay for such an inventory.

Oregon’s land-use system embraces the principle of “smart growth” — high density housing within an “urban growth boundary” where people can live, work and play in the same area. The principle, LaFollette says, works well in urbanized areas like Portland but not so well in resort areas dominated by second homes.

An example is the South Coast city of Brookings, which in 1997 annexed 3,500 acres next to Sam Boardman State Scenic Area. Brookings is planning a 1,000-home development, plus a commercial center and a college campus. Many of these homes are likely to be vacation retreats, as are similar developments up and down the coast.

“This model leads to huge recreational ghettos, empty most of the time,” LaFollette says. “They destroy a neighborhood or town. A smaller, gentler requirement of fewer houses and slight clustering, would be better for both land and the cultural areas. Ironically, developers love this high-density ‘smart growth’ stuff on the coast, because they can just make money hand over fist.”

One such place is Indian Point on the South Slough estuary south of Charleston in Coos County, where residents are fighting a development proposed by a California timber baron named Hank Westbrook. He is “spouting all the smart growth platitudes, and this thing if built will ruin the area,” LaFollette says. “Smart growth is wonderful. But it has to be applied in the right places in the right way.”

Lincoln City, the largest town between Coos Bay and Astoria, sprawls for mile after endless mile along U.S. 101. The city was once proud of its sprawl. In the 1960s, it called itself “the 20 miracle miles.” Oregon’s Gov. Mark Hatfield said it was more like “the 20 miserable miles.” Today, traffic on U.S. 101 in Lincoln City is getting congested faster than anywhere one on the Coast.

In the heart of Lincoln City, the “D” River — a 120-foot river listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s shortest — cuts across a wide expanse of sandy beach as it flows from nearby Devils Lake to the Pacific Ocean.

Sprawl wears many faces, and one of them is water pollution. Twice in July 2005 water quality testing by the Oregon Department of Health found dangerous levels of fecal contamination on the beach near the mouth of the D River. Since the state agency began testing in 2002, Oregon’s beaches have been found unsafe on 132 occasions.

On July 11, the state agency took samples of the water and sent them to a lab for analysis. Two days later, the Health Division posted a warning sign urging people to avoid contact with the water. Testing results showed that the levels of fecal pollution were the highest on Lincoln City beaches since sampling began in 2002.

On July 14, a reporter arrived at the beach to find two young boys swimming in the surf next to the river. The warning sign was nowhere near the pollution; it was posted in the middle of a parking lot about 50 yards from the beach.  

“I don’t know who chose the location for the sign, but I think, in general, they seem more afraid of scaring away tourists than protecting their health,” said Paul Katen, a watershed volunteer in Lincoln City.

It’s not certain, however, that the two boys were in any danger. The Health Division tested water samples at D River Wayside again on July 13.

This time, the results showed that the contamination had receded to levels deemed to be safe under Oregon regulations.

“We have no reason to believe that the swimmers were at any known risk of bacteria exposure, as levels had dropped significantly from the first sample,” said Joel Sherman of the state health department. The July 11 sample was the 12th time in three years that the water at D River Wayside was not safe for human contact, in violation of state water quality standards.

A 13th violation occurred two weeks later. Interestingly, if D River Wayside had been in the state of Washington, where the pollution rules are much tougher, it would have been deemed unhealthy on both July 11 and July 13. Oregon provides the weakest possible protection against fecal coliform on beaches allowed by federal law.

Even so, no one can say whether swimmers at the D River Wayside on July 11 or 12th were safe. And since the beach wasn’t posted until the 13th, those swimmers would have had no way of knowing about any potential danger. The D River wayside is downstream from numerous sources of pollution. The river flows out of Devils Lake, which has been riddled with blue-green algae blooms that can be toxic. Volunteers with a local watershed group have complained that manure has been dumped in the floodplain and in wetlands upstream from the lake. State officials must wait two or three days for lab results before they can issue a warning.

The EPA is encouraging states to use new methods that could yield results within 24 hours. Oregon suggests people stay out of the water for 48 hours after rainfall.

But this precaution is not foolproof. It did not rain during the days before the July violations. Beach-goers are lucky that Oregon even monitors its beaches at all. As recently as 2002, state officials had no data to show how badly polluted the ocean beaches might be.

Though the potential threat was well known from monitoring performed by the Surfrider Foundation, the state still encouraged people to swim at the beaches.  An epidemiological study in Santa Monica Bay, Cal., demonstrated that anyone swimming or surfing near pollution discharge drains faced an increased risk of illness. The fecal coliform bacteria in those discharges can cause infections, and in vulnerable populations, can cause blood stream infections, heart valve problems and meningitis, the U.S. EPA says. 

For years, surfers have been complaining about getting sick from Oregon’s beaches, says Markus Mead, a longtime surfer on Oregon beaches. He heads the Surfrider Foundation chapter in Newport, Ore.

“Many of the symptoms are similar to eating bad Mexican food,” he said.

In 2004, as Mead was surfing off Newport, the county sheriff sped out in a motorboat to warn him and others about a large spill of raw sewage a few miles up the nearby Yaquina River in Toledo. “He ordered us out of the water,” he says.

The Toledo spill led Mead to think about the health dangers of surfing. Until then, he had suffered several ear infections a year. Now that he wears ear plugs those infections have ceased, but he is still vulnerable to infections in his eyes, nose and digestive tract.

“People are constantly reporting to me that they have an ear infection, or a cut that wouldn’t heal for months.”  Nationally, the Surfrider Foundation has been a leading advocate for testing beach water for pollution. Beaches in all coastal states, Mead says, are potential health hazards for surfers.

A breakthrough came in 2000 when Bill Clinton signed the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (better known as the Beach Act). The Beach Act is designed to protect beach-goers from health risks by requiring states to warn the public when beach waters are unsafe for swimming, surfing and other activities.

“The Beach Act sets up a really important program, but the program is underfunded,” says Jackie Savitz of conservation group Oceana. “It’s authorized at $30 million per year, but President Bush this year only asked Congress for $10 million.”

In 2002, Oregon became the last coastal state to join the program. Oregon began by testing more than 50 beaches, but recently reduced testing to just 24, though it has increased the frequency of testing on many beaches to twice a month.

The Health Division has posted 33 health advisories in the last two years at 23 different beaches. The agency warns people that the water is unsafe for human contact but does not close the beaches. Most of the contaminated beaches are north of Yachats, but Sunset Bay State Park beach near Coos Bay has had by far the largest number of violations, 37, as well as some of the highest levels of fecal pollution.

The health division does not always issue a warning when dangerous levels are of pollution are detected. A review of state beach monitoring data by Cascadia Times found that in 2002 no advisories were issued on six different Oregon beaches when dangerous levels of fecal bacteria was detected in the water. Some of these contaminated samples were taken in the D River, and by law the state cannot post freshwater streams.

Under the stricter health standards enforced in the state of Washington, four additional Oregon beaches would have been unsafe for swimming.  On seven occasions, the Oregon health division detected fecal contamination at levels 10 times greater than Oregon’s standard. Two tests came in at 27 times the safe level.  On average, health advisories for contaminated Oregon beaches have stayed in effect for a little more than three weeks, as officials wait for pollution levels to recede to safe levels.

At Sunset Bay State Park, one health advisory remained in effect for four months.  By law, none of the federal funds for testing beaches under the Beach Act can be spent looking for the source of the pollution. And yet, it’s not easy to stop the pollution if you don’t know the cause, Mead says.

The state of Oregon is pursuing federal grants under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act for pinning down the source of this pollution. The Health Division says bacterial contamination in coastal recreational waters can come from a variety of sources, including development, sewage treatment plants, failing septic tanks, urban stormwater runoff, disposal of human waste from boats, bathers them- selves, and waste from animals.

Rural structures built on septic tanks next to the beach are possible sources of beach pollution. Contamination can include all kinds of chemicals and heavy metals from toilets, sinks, showers, storm drains, streets and parking lots. However, the state only tests for fecal coliform.  

Many areas outside cities on the Coast have no sewage treatment facilities, and the individual septic systems attached to structures in these areas often drain into porous, sandy soils that cannot prevent fecal contamination from reaching the beaches, estuaries or rivers, especially after it rains. The pollution is potentially worse where septic tanks are failing.  This contamination harms not only humans, but aquatic ecosystems as well.

Pollution can contaminate spawning areas close to shore and has been detected far out on the Continental Shelf.

Paul Koberstein