For several homeowners perched precariously atop the rapidly eroding Ocean Drive Loop bluff, breakup could mean disaster. Already at least one house is hanging over the edge. Tree roots protrude 50 feet in the air and the bluff showers down in crumbling dirt.
In a mix of private and governmental efforts, an engineer was contracted to design a 2,000 foot seawall to protect the homes from falling to the rocky beach below from the steady power of storms, waves, tide and thawing ice. But now, confusion over the plan and its potential impacts to wildlife or the bay has stalled the project.
After a couple of years of talking, planning and setting up a Local Improvement District so the city could float a bond and front the estimated $1 million cost to be taxed back from affected homeowners, Homer Public Works director Carey Meyer thought construction was ready to begin. Apparently based on a questionnaire to gauge the impacts, Meyer believed state or federal permits would not be needed because the site was above the average high tide mark. After the Army Corps of Engineers was notified early this year and published a March 4 notice, the city soon found out a lot of other federal, state and borough environmental agencies were interested in what was happening on the shores of Kachemak Bay.
That should not have been a surprise.
Our beautiful bay is a world-renowned habitat for waterfowl and marine life. Just last week a host of naturalists held a science conference here. The city is still wrangling over how to protect the beach from damage by drivers and others.
While Meyer followed procedures and believed the questionnaire should have gotten the word out, when planning something this large it would have been better to directly notify every environmental-protection agency with a potential interest earlier.
Erosion should not be a surprise to homeowners who decided to revel in the beauty of the bay by challenging one of its most powerful natural forces. Some bought their properties a decade or two ago, when the bluff was 150 feet or more from where it is now. They expected some erosion, but its speed was stunning.
They are willing to pick up the tab to protect their homes. The city is willing to help. Is it a good idea in the long run? The answer depends on whose ox is being gored, as the saying goes.
The biologists and engineers are sympathetic and plan a speedy review. But who's to blame? There's plenty to go around. City government should have realized a lot of people had a stake in such a big project. The state Division of Governmental Coordination might have coordinated a bit more. And the homeowners might have reconsidered nature's power before deciding to mortgage their future high on the bluff.
Now that push has come to shove, let's hope everyone moves quickly. Homes and possibly lives are at stake now. But there's a lesson too. Coastlines change more quickly than many expect <> especially in the unforgiving Alaska climate and amid the ever-present earthquake danger. Think twice before you build.