Story last updated at 2:36 p.m. Thursday, April 18, 2002

Bluff erosion continues as agencies ponde permits
by R.J. Kelly
Managing Editor

photo: news
  Photo by R. J. Kelly, Homer News
Ocean Drive Loop homes sit on the bluff above the site of a proposed seawall.  
Even as nervous Ocean Drive Loop homeowners watch the bluff below their homes crumble away, a half dozen local, borough, state and federal agencies are re-evaluating the wisdom of building a planned $1 million seawall aimed at slowing the erosion.

After a sometimes-contentious three-hour meeting last Friday that went from Homer City Hall to the beach and back, the project remains on hold while city Public Works director Carey Meyer prepares to respond to engineering and environmental impact questions raised during the session.

Matters to be considered include the potential effect on sensitive wildlife habitats, how the wall might shift erosion patterns elsewhere and the wall's durability. Whether the project poses any threat of environmental damage is still an open question, according to several federal and state officials at the meeting - but they want more detailed information before allowing construction.

At issue is a proposed 2,000-foot-long, 10-foot-high wall made of fiberglass-composite sheets that would be backfilled with material dredged from the Small Boat Harbor. It would extend below the Ocean Drive Loop bluff in an effort to keep it from collapsing from the force of tide, waves and the freeze-thaw cycle.

photo: news
  Photo by R. J. Kelly, Homer News
Photo by R. J. Kelly, Homer News Maureen deZeeuw, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, makes notes as she talks with seawall engineer Arvind Phukan, right as officials and residents toured the Ocen Drive Loop beach last Friday.  
Concerns raised Friday include the latest design, wave energy, sediment movements, construction methods and site access, critical wildlife areas and how tides might affect the filled-in area.

Such details are typically addressed early in the permitting process, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Maureen deZeeuw from Anchorage, and Phillip North, an aquatic ecologist and watershed coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Soldotna, said their agencies and others were not aware of the large scope of the project until the Corps issued its public notice last month.

Although planned above the average high tide mark, deZeeuw and North noted that storm-driven waves and tides rise above the proposed wall location, potentially weakening it or washing eroded sediment elsewhere.

Vigorously defending his design while walking the beach site, Anchorage engineer Arvind Phukan said the wall would protect the bluff by dissipating the force of the waves without shifting damaging effects elsewhere.

"We are concerned about this (bay) side out," deZeeuw told him. "Sometimes there are consequences you don't anticipate," North added.

Phukan was hired by the city to design the wall, but the estimated $950,000 in construction costs will be collected back from affected property owners, probably over a 10- or 20-year period. The city expects to cover about $50,000 in administrative and financing costs, Meyer said.

While several blufftop homeowners, including Larry Goode, Paul Hueper and Brad Dickey, pushed for immediate construction to save their homes, not all area residents supported the fiberglass design.

"I fundamentally object to this project," said Findlay Abbott, whose house is teetering over the edge of the bluff, propped up by a maze of planks and emergency supports. Abbott said he and his sister have lost two-thirds of their property over the last 10 years on their two lots with 100-foot bluff frontage each.

Abbott believes an "armor rock" wall of large boulders would be stronger and cheaper than the $45,000 each that he says he and his sister will be assessed for what he called "an experiment."

But Phukan said armor rock was rejected in favor of the fiberglass alternative. While defending the durability of his design, Phukan acknowledged the ability of homeowners to pay was a factor limiting alternatives. "If they had lots of money it would be a different case," he said.

Meyer said the city and Phukan had expected little objection to the project and were ready to build. Partly at the urging of officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers on April 3 suspended review and the city stopped the clock.

Expressing frustration Friday, Meyer said he had thought a questionnaire city representatives filled out last December for the state Division of Governmental Coordination indicated the project wouldn't require permits. Based on previous experience, Meyer answered "no" to the need for a Corps permit based on it being above the average, or mean high tide mark. But the Corps and other agencies are using the extreme high tide line, which then raised red flags about the wall.

Sue Magee of the Governmental Coordination office in Anchorage said the division has stopped midway through its 50-day review to determine compliance with coastal zone management guidelines. Because the coordination office focuses on state agencies, deZeeuw said, Fish and Wildlife, EPA and other federal agencies do not necessarily hear of the project earlier unless the applicant, in this case the city of Homer, contacts them directly.

One of deZeeuw's concerns is of impacts on habitat of endangered Steller eiders and other sea ducks.

From the standpoint of protecting the bluff homes, "the Corps understands the need for the project," Army Corps coordinator Ryan Winn said after touring the site. "I'd like to see the wall be moved as close to the bluff as possible," he added.

Phukan said his revised design already moves the wall about 20 feet closer than the "conceptual design" submitted with the original application.

Winn also requested an analysis of why alternatives were ruled out. Once questions are answered, "I can start the ball rolling right away" on the review process, Winn told anxious homeowners.

Noting the small slides of dirt from the bluff observed several times during Friday's beach walk, blufftop homeowner Larry Goode said "what you saw . . . is nothing compared to what will happen within 45 days" as breakup continues in earnest.

"Our homes are in dire need here," Goode said. "If you're not going to do it, then tell us ... so we can go on with our lives in some other way," he said.

"I thought we'd be starting in January. I never dreamed we'd be sitting here in April."

Dave Schroer, who said he moved away from the bluff in 1975 after 10 years but still maintains a financial interest in property there, had a pragmatic view of the wave-driven erosion. "You can only slow it down, you can't stop it," he said.