What’s best for Gleason Beach?

By Richard Charter

The iconic Gleason Beach / Scotty Creek watershed presents a prime example of a place where early pioneering settlers, digging out a dirt road by hand and horse-drawn equipment, followed the shortest distance between two points.

Before contemporary land use planning was even a thing here, a precarious subdivision was sold off and houses built on an already-crumbling cliffside that has, quite predictably, continued to crumble. See video:

At the heart of our Local Coastal Plan, from the beginning, the critical importance of this particular valley, with its varied lush wetlands, its cozy sheltered pocket beach where rehabilitated marine mammals have long been released back to the wild, and its recognized historic - and even prehistoric – rich cultural significance, has long been duly acknowledged as one of our most important Sonoma Coast “Scenic Landscape Units”, or SLU’s.

Knowing this, many of us have attended each and every local meeting held by Caltrans on their proposal for this location, each time hearing from the well-intentioned bridgebuilders that a massive bridge far out of scale with the site would be the only feasible solution here, each time with the response that “the constraints imposed by the location” limited their options, while each time less-impactful alternate routes were inexplicably ignored in order to avoid addressing the “elephant in the room” – a community septic leachfield that was inappropriately-sited long ago to serve several nearby houses at that time, many of which simply now no longer exist, a feature that could be relocated and improved for a fraction of the cost of building their bridge. The lack of foresight and long-term vision back at the time this well-intentioned leachfield was sited should not translate into so much unnecessary damage now.

I would like nothing better than to speak today in support of the proposal now before you. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. I know the giant bridge is still being framed for you by Caltrans as “the only way”. When the then-rural ranching community of Portola Valley faced a giant freeway coming through their bucolic horse pastures during the 1960’s, the Junipero Serra freeway engineers worked with Lawrence Halprin, the landscape architect, and architect Mario Ciampi, to create a road that was widely heralded as the “most beautiful freeway in the world” when the initial segment was opened. This highway, with its careful alignment, minimizing cut and fill, and the bold, sculptural concrete overpasses, does little to diminish the spectacular landscape of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County, after a series of frustratingly non-receptive meetings, we instead have thus far only managed to achieve a brown-toned concrete dye and an online Doodle poll of which of four colors to paint the bridge railings, thus diverting us from the real issue, which still cries out “Too big and too unnecessarily intrusive for such a fragile site.” Repeated requests for a County-directed ombudsman to watch over this project, especially during fire season, and particularly in light of the uncaring behavior of prior Caltrans contractors who exhibited such obvious carelessness while working on coring and other early project elements at this site, continue to be ignored.

The Scotty Creek view-shed would not just be altered. From almost all possible sight-lines, the view-shed would be simply gone, blocked instead by a view of only the bridge itself. If the alteration of the site’s erosion-prone wetland hydrology and drainage pattern falls victim to the broad expanse of new concrete hardscape surface, and the planned rock armoring of the shoreline along the remaining existing roadway is permitted, the issue is not just one of optics, instead, the Project is an unnecessary scar.

We’ve become so accustomed to the powers-that-be rendering spectacular places in nature unrecognizable, that now we are sadly about to let it happen on the Sonoma Coast. This way, we lose the coast that we all claim to treasure, more than just a little bit at a time, but in this case, in one very large bite.

Amidst our County’s recent regime of semi-annual cataclysmic disasters, paving over one coastal watershed may not seem like much. One can always look back on today and say that one thought at the time that one was “doing the right thing” or that “it seemed to be the best we could get”.

Please go to Scotty Creek, get out of the car, walk the site, taste the salt air, note the lack of evidence that the creek has ever over-topped the roadway, listen, pay attention, look up above your head, and try to visualize this particular project hanging in mid-air above you, imagine what you see now and consider what will be occluded from view if the project is built as proposed, then sleep on your decision, please, before offering the tacit consent of your silence.

At the very least, you will feel better when, in a couple of years, locals and visitors alike are asking you how in the world something like this was ever allowed to happen to such a beautiful and sensitive place.

Gleason Beach Project Information from CALTRANS Re-read with excerpts from above letter addresing some of the claims made...

According to Caltrans, the stability of this section of Highway 1 (called SR1 by Caltrans) is threatened by coastal bluff erosion. Efforts to preserve the roadway in place are only temporarily effective. No stabilization measures, including piles, can stave off erosive effects along the coastline.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is proposing to realign a section of Highway 1 near Gleason Beach in Sonoma County.
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is proposing to realign a section of Highway 1 near Gleason Beach in Sonoma County.

( image: https://www.adaptationclearinghouse.org/resources/gleason-beach-california-highway-1-road-realignment-project.html)

Project Description

The Gleason Beach Realignment Project would construct an approximately 3,700-foot, two-lane roadway and 850-foot long bridge span over Scotty Creek. The two-lane roadway and bridge span would be 49 feet wide including 6- to 8-foot shoulders and a 6-foot sidewalk in the southbound direction to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian access. The existing box culvert and grade-separation structure at Scotty Creek would be removed.

The project also includes three separate access roads to existing Highway 1, as well as public improvements.

As the long-term solution, the Gleason Beach Roadway Realignment Project PROVIDES a long-term, sustainable solution, PROTECTS State Route 1 from coastal erosion and MAINTAINS long-term local and regional connectivity for surrounding communities.

But...

No stabilization measures, including piles, can stave off erosive effects along the coastline.The Scotty Creek viewshed would not just be altered. From almost all possible sightlines, the viewshed would be simply gone, blocked instead by a view of only the bridge itself. If the alteration of the site’s erosion-prone wetland hydrology and drainage pattern falls victim to the broad expanse of new concrete hardscape surface, and the planned rock armoring of the shoreline along the remaining existing roadway is permitted, the issue is not just one of optics, instead, the Project is an unnecessary scar.

Ongoing community outreach and partnering agency coordination has been an essential part of the Gleason Beach Roadway Realignment Project at every stage of the project beginning with the EIR scoping meeting in 2014 held to identify environmental constraints through to the SR 1 Sonoma Coast Emergency Repair Town Hall meetings held in Spring/Summer 2019 to keep the community informed about multiple, ongoing roadway repairs critical to keeping the roadway operational.

Knowing this, many of us have attended each and every local meeting held by Caltrans on their proposal for this location, each time hearing from the well-intentioned bridgebuilders that a massive bridge far out of scale with the site would be the only feasible solution here, each time with the response that “the constraints imposed by the location” limited their options, while each time less-impactful alternate routes were inexplicably ignored in order to avoid addressing the “elephant in the room” – a community septic leachfield that was inappropriately-sited long ago to serve several nearby houses at that time, many of which simply now no longer exist, a feature that could be relocated and improved for a fraction of the cost of building their bridge. The lack of foresight and long-term vision back at the time this well-intentioned leachfield was sited should not translate into so much unnecessary damage now.

Based on proactive dialogue with the community, Caltrans has continued to refine the project design to minimize environmental impacts that will keep the roadway operational for decades and to incorporate public access and design elements that will provide community benefits (for Changes Since the EIR click here).

Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County, after a series of frustratingly non-receptive meetings, we instead have thus far only managed to achieve a brown-toned concrete dye and an online Doodle poll of which of four colors to paint the bridge railings, thus diverting us from the real issue, which still cries out “Too big and too unnecessarily intrusive for such a fragile site.” Repeated requests for a County-directed ombudsman to watch over this project, especially during fire season, and particularly in light of the uncaring behavior of prior Caltrans contractors who exhibited such obvious carelessness while working on coring and other early project elements at this site, continue to be ignored.

To receive project updates and to be informed of new website content, please join the mailing list by signing up online at https://gleasonbeachrealignment.org/public-outreach. The Caltrans website has an entire page dedicated to the Gleason Beach Realignment Project.

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