A surfer at Beacon’s Beach
A surfer at Beacon’s Beach
A surfer at Beacon’s Beach (Photo: Tom Fowlks)
Outside Magazine's Award Winning Travel Journalism

The Battle for Beacon’s Beach

With increased coastal flooding and erosion, climate change is harshing California’s mellow vibes. Officials say it’s time to retreat from the shore altogether. Residents want to stay and fight. Paul Kvinta reports from the front lines of a pitched battle, where geologists and millionaires are squaring off, and friendly fire between surfers isn’t so friendly.

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In many ways, Jim Jaffee and Ari Marsh have a lot in common. Both are lifelong surfers in their fifties who have traveled the world chasing waves off four continents. Both are environmentalists. And both live near the beach in north San Diego County, a pillar of American surf culture—Jaffee in Solana Beach, Marsh in Encinitas. But when they met for the first time, in July 2018, on the 85-foot bluff overlooking Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas, what stood out were their differences.

The scene that evening was classic Beacon’s. With the sun low over the Pacific, surfers schlepped their boards up and down the long switchback trail connecting the clifftop parking lot with the beach below. From the bluff’s edge, parents chatted over post-surf beers, kids bounced around in wetsuits, and dogs tugged at their leashes. Couples enjoyed the endless ocean view, and surfers evaluated the waves. Beacon’s produces waves that are more modest than those at San Diego County’s legendary breaks, including Trestles to the north and Swami’s to the south. On the right day, however, with the right swell and the right Santa Ana winds blowing offshore, any of the breaks here—South Reef, Middles, Bamboos, North Reef—can make for fantastic surfing. Not that it matters. Ultimately, Beacon’s is a neighborhood surf spot, a place locals cherish as much for the community as for the waves.

Still, Beacon’s had a problem. Geologists consider the bluff an active landslide, eroding from wave action, water runoff, and groundwater penetration. Geotechnical studies of Beacon’s include phrases like “clear and imminent danger” and warn that bluff failure could “cause damage to life, health, or property.” There had been up to ten feet of landward erosion at the bottom of the bluff since 2002. With the parking lot and its 25 spaces extending to the edge of the bluff, the concern was that, without warning, the entire landscape could collapse, sending an avalanche of rock, asphalt, and cars hurtling toward the beach.

Jaffee is not a coastal engineer, but an electrical one with a major telecommunications company. He brings a problem-solving approach to life. He’s also a longtime volunteer and beach-preservation expert with the Surf­rider Foundation. He agreed with geologists that the parking lot needed to be pulled back from the “slide plane.” And since a landslide would obliterate the bluff-hugging trail and eliminate access to a popular beach, a stairway was needed—something sturdy enough to withstand a bluff collapse. City officials were considering a proposal that did both of these things. The plan made sense to Jaffee.

Marsh, on the other hand, has a Zen poet’s approach to life. In his published collections of surf poetry and essays, Beacon’s figures prominently. In one piece, he calls the formation of waves at Beacon’s and his ­moments upon them “sacred mandalas” that ­symbolize “the ever-changing nature of our lives.” To Marsh, geotechnical studies didn’t capture the essence of Beacon’s. Transcendent, often inexplicable things happened there. One time, when he and some other surfers were lined up way outside at South Reef, a sea lion pup surfaced suddenly. The critter hopped onto Marsh, who was lying on his board, and clutched onto him for almost 15 minutes. It was shaking. Had a shark been chasing it? When a particularly big set rolled in, Marsh duck-dived under the waves and the pup hopped off. The two locked eyes for a moment after Marsh reemerged, then the animal disappeared. The experience reminded Marsh that Beacon’s is a hallowed place.

For Marsh, the city’s proposal was a desecration. The designs for a concrete stairway amounted to an industrial intrusion into the last bit of pristine coast left in Encinitas. He also couldn’t fathom Beacon’s without that iconic switchback trail. Similar trails and their retro quality were now a rarity in Southern California. The proposal was scheduled to be considered by the Encinitas Planning Commission in one week’s time. Marsh had launched an opposition movement called Preserve Beacon’s with another surfer, Pete Brately, and they arrived at the bluff that evening hopeful that they could sway Jaffee. Surfrider, since its start in 1984, had evolved from a ragtag group of surfers defending California’s surf breaks into a heavyweight coastal-advocacy organization. If Marsh could get Surfrider on board, the plan would almost certainly fail.

At the bluff, the three were joined by Jaffee’s colleague Julia Chunn-Heer, who was the policy manager for Surfrider’s San Diego chapter. Everyone agreed they loved the trail, but keeping it long-term meant securing the slope with a seawall at the bottom. Beaches are dynamic systems that naturally migrate landward, Jaffee explained, with eroding bluffs providing sand. Fixed structures stop that migration and eliminate sand supply. Plus, with sea-level rise, the advancing surf would eventually reach the seawall and cover the beach, like water filling a bathtub. A seawall basically meant losing the beach. Marsh wasn’t pushing for a seawall—he just wanted to leave things be. There had not been a major slide at Beacon’s since 2001. Why all the urgency?

Still, the meeting was cordial. Jaffee and Chunn-Heer clearly leaned toward the city’s plan, but they hadn’t taken an official position yet. That gave Marsh hope. He left the meeting thinking, That was weird. I mean, it’s Surfrider. They support surfers, right? They support maintaining the character of beaches. Marsh believed Jaffee would eventually come through.

Six days later, 48 hours before the planning commission vote, the local newspaper, the Coast News, carried the headline “Surf­rider Foundation Endorses City’s Staircase Plan.” Marsh was crushed. “They’re ignoring local surfers,” he told Brately. “They’re ruining something iconic.” It was one thing to battle the city, he thought, and now they had to fight Surfrider, too? They couldn’t possibly win.

Jim Jaffee
Jim Jaffee (Tom Fowlks)
Ari Marsh on the trail to Beacon’s
Ari Marsh on the trail to Beacon’s (Tom Fowlks)

Entangled in the fight over Beacon’s was something coastal administrators call managed retreat, the idea that, rather than actively resisting rising seas, increased flooding, and catastrophic erosion, you pull back from the coast altogether, you preemptively move people, housing, and infrastructure out of harm’s way. The Beacon’s proposal called for the easiest managed retreat possible—moving a small public parking lot back a few feet from an eroding bluff. Residents weren’t being asked to leave their homes, nor did this require the complex relocation of, say, a wastewater treatment facility. All that was involved was a slab of asphalt. “It was a no-brainer,” Jaffee says when we meet in April in Del Mar, a town a few miles south of Encinitas. Jaffee would know. With the uncertainties of climate change, a battle royal over managed retreat has recently been unfolding along California’s 1,100-mile coastline as communities determine what, if anything, to relocate from the shoreline. Jaffee has been in the trenches of that battle, in scenarios far more complicated than Beacon’s. Still, what happened at Beacon’s is instructive. The reason why is best captured in the question Jaffee and his colleagues began asking themselves when the situation went sideways: If a community can’t agree on moving a parking lot—a parking lot on a dangerous cliff, no less—how will entire neighborhoods agree to relocate when sea-level rise ultimately demands it?

It’s no surprise that sea-level projections are hair-raising. As oceans warm and ice sheets melt, scientists predict that seas will rise anywhere from 1.6 to 10.2 feet by the end of the century. With 110 million coastal residents around the world living below current high-tide levels, and 250 million below annual flood levels, even a modest rise could be devastating. In the U.S., coastal counties are home to nearly 40 percent of the population, or 128 million people, along with the nation’s ports, harbors, and businesses that do billions of dollars in commerce. In California, where beach culture has stoked the American imagination for generations—and where some of the priciest real estate anywhere is found—the Union of Concerned Scientists determined that with two feet of sea-level rise by 2045, at least 20,000 homes, worth a total of $15 billion, could succumb to chronic flooding (defined as flooding that occurs more than 25 times a year). By 2100, six and a half feet of sea-level rise would threaten some 109,000 homes, worth over $75 billion.

Some of those oceanfront homes are in Del Mar, and to provide some context for the Beacon’s fight, Jaffee reviews with me the good, the bad, and the ugly of managed retreat in California as we stroll the beach. Jaffee is short and solidly built, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and an irredeemable surfing addiction. Recent minor surgery has kept him out of the water, but he has been countering the withdrawal by ­obsessively monitoring a big swell that arrived this morning from New Zealand and updating me every few minutes. “They’re getting 15 feet at the Wedge in Newport Beach,” he says, and “In Costa Rica the waves are really firing!”

Unlike Encinitas and much of California, where beaches are backed by high bluffs, this part of Del Mar has a low-relief shoreline. Homes sit right on the beach. Jaffee stops at a boxy, cream-colored house with a back wall made mostly of glass. One day during the destructive El Niño winter of 1997–98, he was surfing the storm-fueled waves here when a couch drifted from this house and floated past him. “There was all kinds of stuff in the water,” he says. “This place got hammered.” We examine the ten-foot-tall seawall that probably saved the house from total destruction that day. It’s a battered behemoth of rusting steel and cracked cement extending 40 feet along the beach, with giant boulders piled in front of it. Every house here has similar defenses. As Jaffee describes the devastating assortment of hydrological forces the Pacific can generate (extremely high king tides, unpredictable El Niños), I have to wonder how much longer residents here can fend off Mother Nature with rocks and concrete. The El Niño of 1982–83, for example, California’s most destructive ever, dovetailed with king tides and a storm surge to produce water levels at the shoreline 27 feet above normal. “What happens when you add three feet of sea-level rise to that?” Jaffee asks.

Most of these homes were built in the mid-20th century, a strangely calm period on the West Coast, climatically speaking, that scientists now refer to as a negative Pacific decadal oscillation cycle, a stretch characterized by few significant El Niños or storms. From the mid-1940s to 1977, relatively flawless Southern California weather lulled folks into believing they could build on beaches, atop bluffs, basically anywhere. The state’s population exploded from nine to twenty-three million people, and coastal development went gangbusters. Then, in 1978, the climate shifted abruptly to a positive PDO cycle, bringing frequently violent weather. In response to several brutal El Niños, communities began “armoring” their shores with seawalls and boulder piles, a.k.a. riprap. In 1971, just 2.5 percent of California’s coastline was armored, but today that number is 14 percent. In the heavily developed southern coastal counties, 38 percent of the shoreline is armored.

In response to this frenetic development, California approved the Coastal Act in 1976, to protect beaches and guarantee access for all residents. Charged with enforcing the act is the California Coastal Commission, a powerful agency that regulates development in a coastal zone running the length of the state. Because seawalls and riprap occupy beach space and interfere with ­access, and because they will eventually cause beaches to disappear with sea-level rise, the commission hates armoring. The multimillion-dollar homes in Del Mar that Jaffee and I are strolling past are allowed seawalls and riprap because they were built before 1977. The commission otherwise makes approval for such protection difficult. Surfrider shares this sentiment about armoring. “For me it’s about social justice,” Jaffee says. “The people in the front row do not get to decide what happens to a public beach. Everybody deserves access to the beach.”

Managed retreat has blown up in California, because in 2015 the commission asked every coastal community to devise a plan to prepare for more than five feet of sea-level rise by 2100. It funded vulnerability studies for communities and encouraged them to consider managed retreat. This statewide planning process quickly met with resistance. Soon managed retreat was viewed, incorrectly, as eminent domain. Big Brother was taking your house. Here in Del Mar, residents freaked out at public meetings, fearing property values would plunge and insurance rates soar. At one meeting, after Jaffee advocated for managed retreat, a guy cursed him out. Another time, a speaker tried to blurt out the personal phone number of Chunn-Heer at a packed meeting. City council members had to intervene.

“Sentimentality plays a big role,” says Jennifer Savage, Surfrider’s former statewide policy director. “People feel attached to something. They don’t want to see it change. They can’t see the scientific alternatives.”

Jaffee and I arrive at a low-slung beach home with a patio stretching 120 feet across the back, studded with thatch umbrellas and potted palms. “This is Bill Gates’s house,” he says. “He bought it last year from T. Boone Pickens’s ex-wife for $43 million. That’s who we’re dealing with here.”

The outcry extends beyond Del Mar. To the south, Imperial Beach embraced managed retreat before public outrage forced an about-face. In the Northern California town of Pacifica, real estate interests funded the electoral ouster of a mayor who supported managed retreat. And in Santa Cruz, on the central coast, a homeowner’s association invited geologist Gary Griggs to give a talk on climate change but forbade him from ­uttering two words: managed retreat. “Retreat is not a new concept,” says Griggs, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “It’s been happening for thousands of years in the form of unmanaged ­retreat. That’s what we’ll have if we don’t plan for it.” In California and beyond, Griggs has documented instances of the sea devouring communities or forcing them to move. At Gleason Beach in Sonoma County, at least 11 clifftop homes built in the 1930s have either fallen into the ocean or were demolished after wave-­triggered erosion. In Encinitas, a bluff collapse in 1942 caused a temple of the Self-Realization Fellowship to tumble to the beach. The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast, a 1912 book Griggs unearthed in his research, chronicles the disappearance of 29 villages over 2,000 years stretching back to the Roman occupation. Over two millennia, 115 square miles of land crumbled into the North Sea.

The conflict over managed retreat has overshadowed the few instances where it has succeeded. At Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica in 2005, for instance, officials completed a project involving the purchase and demolition of two rental houses, the relocation of a parking lot, and the restoration of wetlands. Jaffee drives me to Seaside Beach in Encinitas to show me another example. Like Del Mar, Seaside is a low-relief shoreline; the parking lot here abuts the beach. One day during the 1997–98 El Niño, the waves here were so insane that they snapped Jaffee’s board in two. He ran home, grabbed another board, and paddled back out. The waves snapped that board, too. Jaffee gave up. But walking home he witnessed something ­bizarre. “The parking lot was going all Poltergeist,” he says. He watched the asphalt literally buckling from the storm surge and water pressure. Afterward, a portion of the parking lot was gone, and the beachside bathroom was heavily damaged. State-park officials reconfigured the lot and moved the bathroom to the back of the beach, away from the water. “This was a successful managed retreat,” Jaffee says.

But Seaside isn’t Beacon’s. People aren’t emotionally connected to this place in the same way. Sure, the surfing is better, but Seaside is geographically situated such that no neighborhood really claims it as its own. At Beacon’s, on the other hand, nearby residents view the bluff and beach as pretty much the center of their universe.

Beacon’s is located in northwest Encinitas, in an area called Leucadia. Two and a half miles of towering coastal bluff form Leucadia’s western boundary, atop which runs Neptune Avenue and a nearly unbroken string of residential development. The only significant open space occurs at the Beacon’s parking lot, a 400-foot gap where the public can view ocean instead of houses.

The submerged rock reefs that trigger waves at Beacon’s are what remain of Eocene bluffs that formed 56 million years ago but have since eroded away. Tall bluffs once extended for miles out into the Pacific. What happened at Beacon’s on December 1, 1982, was a continuation of this age-old pattern. El Niño–fueled waves and rain battered the bluff until it gave way. Back then, a wooden staircase provided access to the beach, but the landslide destroyed it. Afterward, surfers—never ones to let calamity deny them good waves—began picking their way down the landslide, and in time a switchback trail emerged. In 2001, another storm-triggered bluff collapse wrecked part of that trail. That’s when officials decided to take action.

Beacon’s is a state beach, but it’s ­managed by the city of Encinitas, and after the 2001 collapse the city secured $2.75 million from the California Department of Parks and Recreation to make the bluff safer. City officials wanted to build a seawall, but Jaffee and ­Surfrider argued that armoring would destroy the beach. The city’s own environmental-impact report recommended relocating the parking lot, building a staircase, and letting the bluff erode away naturally. But the city proceeded with seawall plans until 2010, when the state rejected the project.

Outraged, Encinitas mayor Dan Dalager accused state officials of bending to environmental groups. He told reporters that the state “is more interested in being politically correct than serving the needs of the community—they said basically, ‘We’re just going to watch it collapse.’ ”

Dalager’s frustration is understandable, because while fatal bluff collapses are rare in California, they do happen. An especially horrific example occurred in Encinitas, just north of Beacon’s at Grandview Beach, in 2019, when a landslide crushed to death three women in the same family. They had gathered at the beach to celebrate one of the women’s recovery from cancer.

In 2014, city officials tried again at Beacon’s. This time they wanted to secure the slope at the bottom with a 25-foot-deep buttress of “erodible concrete.” The substance supposedly erodes at the same rate as a natural bluff, but Surfrider argued that this hadn’t been proven. Jaffee produced a position statement clarifying Surfrider’s stance against armoring of any kind at Beacon’s. In 2017, after the city had allocated $750,000 for the project, the coastal commission warned against the “armoring effects” of the buttress. It, too, suggested ­relocating the parking lot instead.

Eventually, tired of spending years and money to develop plans only to have them rejected, the city approached both Surfrider and the coastal commission with a plan that would relocate the parking lot and build a staircase. We’re finally getting somewhere! Jaffee thought. Both groups signaled support. On its website, Surfrider said that the city’s new direction “provides another opportunity for managed retreat instead of hard armoring. Access to the beach will be maintained and/or improved without destroying the very coastal resources the community was trying to access in the first place.” It called the plan “a real win for the coastal environment.”

Surfers on the switchback trail to Beacon’s
Surfers on the switchback trail to Beacon’s (Tom Fowlks)
A seawall in Del Mar
A seawall in Del Mar (Tom Fowlks)
Del Mar beach houses
Del Mar beach houses (Tom Fowlks)
Grandview Beach access
Grandview Beach access (Tom Fowlks)

In December 2017, Ari Marsh learned about a public meeting at Encinitas City Hall involving a project at Beacon’s. He decided to check it out. Beacon’s isn’t just Marsh’s favorite surf spot. It’s his favorite spot period. Whatever was being planned, he wanted to know about it.

Marsh is tall and lean, with a balding top and stubbly goatee. He once had a wife, a house, and a teaching career, but that was a lifetime ago. Now he lived alone in a modest apartment, maintained a vegan lifestyle, and was always downsizing and simplifying. Partly that was so he could afford to live near the ocean and surf every day. But it was also because Marsh was a soul surfer, and that’s what soul surfers do. They seek flow and harmony in a society that’s too fast-paced and cluttered. They surf to commune with nature. Marsh wore an abalone necklace at all times to stay connected to the ocean’s energy. He scraped by financially as a ­working musician. Marsh’s relationship with Beacon’s ran deep. He often moseyed over to the bluff after 11 p.m. just to smell the air. He kept an assortment of reef rocks and sand dollars arranged just so on his patio, items he viewed as his “Beacon’s treasures.”

At the city hall meeting, a coastal engineer explained that the bluff could collapse any moment, that the weight of all those cars needed to be removed. But what really grabbed Marsh was one word: stairs. Whoa! he thought. He piped up that the trail was classic and should never be replaced with stairs. Others worried that moving the parking lot would squeeze Neptune Avenue, an already narrow single-lane street. Officials at the meeting mostly listened. Then they took everyone’s contact information and said they’d be in touch. Marsh didn’t hear anything more about it.

In the spring of 2018, Marsh saw the city’s 2017 annual report and read a shocking headline: “Beacon’s Beach Improvement Plans Moving Forward.” The item explained that plans to move the parking lot and build stairs were in motion, that $750,000 had already been spent, and that construction costs would soon be earmarked. Marsh freaked out. He couldn’t believe how fast things were progressing, and with no community input. He called the city but couldn’t get any straight answers. He did learn that another public meeting would happen in June. Inspired to take action, he created a flier that urged folks to attend the next meeting and defend the trail. Then he printed out dozens of copies and distributed them all over town.

Soon tensions started to rise. Marsh heard from a friend that a city official ripped one of his fliers off a portable toilet at a street festival and exclaimed about the Beacon’s project, “This is a done deal!” Marsh didn’t see the incident, but his friend said it happened, so it must have, right? Regardless, the phrase “This is a done deal!” began circulating at coffee shops and other local hangouts. People were getting pissed. Didn’t they have a say? Worse, Marsh learned that the stairs would be made of concrete rather than wood. Concrete apparently required drilling fewer pilings into the bluff.

For Marsh, the June meeting was a disaster. Sure, the city welcomed written comments from the public, but it seemed perfunctory. Officials appeared laser-focused on their intended plan. Marsh had written an 11-page brief criticizing the proposal and offering alternatives, and at one point he waved it in the air and encouraged everyone to read it. He passed out copies left and right.

The meeting revealed one bright spot. Marsh learned he had allies. He met the surfer Pete Brately, the source of a similar flier he’d seen. They met at Coffee Coffee the next day and decided to launch an opposition effort, Preserve Beacon’s. They brainstormed possible recruits. Marsh recalled seeing Jade Machado at the meeting. Her support would be epic. The Machado name carries serious weight in Encinitas. Jade is the cousin of surfing legend Rob Machado, winner of Hawaii’s Pipe Masters, an inductee in the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach, and a heavily sponsored board designer in town. Jade’s parents, Ed and Zee Machado, had lived in the neighborhood for several decades and were pillars of the community.

Jade was all in. But there were even weightier potential allies out there: the ­multimillion-dollar oceanfront homeowners on Neptune Avenue. Marsh had met some of them at the meeting. They had hired a lawyer. Marsh knew that these were people the city couldn’t ignore. Then again, he and Brately wielded a certain power themselves. They had the ability to rally hundreds of Beacon’s-loving surfers. As the fight unfolded, the two groups joined forces under the Preserve Beacon’s banner. It was an unlikely alliance. On one side you had guys like Marsh, who were trying to live lives unencumbered by worldly possessions. On the other, you had folks who owned the most desirable possessions imaginable. Some worried that sinking pilings for a staircase might destabilize the already-eroding ground their homes sat on. Others balked at the idea of managed retreat, concerned with what the precedent could mean for their properties. Marsh was mostly agnostic on managed retreat. But ultimately, if the homeowners could help save the trail, he viewed their support as a tremendous blessing.

An active slide in Del Mar
An active slide in Del Mar (Tom Fowlks)
A damaged private staircase near Beacon’s
A damaged private staircase near Beacon’s (Tom Fowlks)
A seawall in Leucadia
A seawall in Leucadia (Tom Fowlks)
Erosion at Beacon’s
Erosion at Beacon’s (Tom Fowlks)

“You can’t understand the Beacon’s situation without understanding Leucadia,” Marsh tells me as we head out for a tour of the area. Encinitas was born in 1986, a fusion of five distinct unincorporated areas, and of these Leucadia was the funky one. Its roguish charm and 1970s vibe made it feel like the quintessential Southern California surf town. It had no sidewalks. Most houses were simple bungalows with surfboards crammed inside. Railroad tracks cut right through town, and pedestrians crossed them wherever they liked. Shops and restaurants along Coast Highway, the main drag, were modest, one-story affairs, many with signs fashioned from old surfboards.

Much of this remains today. Residents live by the mantra “Keep Leucadia funky,” and if you want Target or McDonald’s, you have to go elsewhere in Encinitas. Marsh drives me through stretches with a semirural feel, open spaces with orange trees, avocado trees, and roses sprouting everywhere. He points out a property with overgrown grass, chain-link fencing, and a curious assortment of palms. “You could sell that for a million easy,” he says. “But that’s not what it’s all about!”

Still, things are changing. We stop at a construction site where workers are erecting a three-story house. “This was probably some funky little shack they tore down,” Marsh says glumly. Along Coast Highway we see bulldozers, dump trucks, and hard-hat guys working on the Leucadia Streetscape project, a series of roundabouts, sidewalks, and bike paths meant to gussy up the place. Meanwhile, on the north end of Leucadia, Marsh shows me the massive new Alila Marea Beach Resort, where rooms range from $765 to $5,765 a night. “Here?” he says. “In funky Leucadia?” Marsh has a term for all this: coastal modernization. “The mayor and the city council are all on board. We’re becoming Orange County.”

At the time of the Beacon’s fight, the ­proposed staircase struck Marsh as part of this modernization effort. It would be this massive concrete thing on pilings so high that opponents dubbed it the “Las Vegas skyway.” As it is, most of the other beach-access points in Leucadia and Encinitas already involve long stairways, some of them shoehorned between residential buildings. The trail at Beacon’s was natural and unique. It was pure Leucadia.

In Santa Cruz, a homeowner’s association invited geologist Gary Griggs to give a talk on climate change but forbade him from uttering two words: managed retreat.

Marsh shows me one last thing. In the Cardiff section of Encinitas, we stop at a bronze statue of a guy surfing, a guy known universally as the Cardiff Kook. A kook is someone in the lineup who doesn’t know what he’s doing. That is clearly the case with this fellow. For starters, his arms are high and flailing. Secondly, the wave at Cardiff is a legendary longboard wave. “The statue should reflect that,” Marsh says. “He should be cross-stepping or hanging ten.” While the statue is meant to honor Encinitas surfers, Marsh says officials sought no input from the locals during its creation. Ever since it went up, in 2007, surfers have mocked it by festooning it with crazy outfits. Right now, the Kook is sporting a pink wig and a blue lei. “This statue shows that we can’t let these people make decisions about things they know nothing about,” Marsh says. “They’re out of touch. Is the Beacon’s staircase going to be another Cardiff Kook? If this is the model, we’re fucked.”

That may be the case. But when I ask Marsh what should be done about the dicey parking lot at Beacon’s, he doesn’t really have an answer. He mentions soft solutions like beach nourishment—adding sand to maintain beach width and reduce wave-triggered bluff erosion. Nourishment has been the go-to strategy on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, accounting for most of the nation’s 3,259 nourishment projects to date, which have involved 1.6 billion cubic yards of sand at a cost of $8 billion. Many beaches are nourished repeatedly. In Florida, 12 beaches have been replenished 17 times or more, with Palm Beach topping out at 51 times. In one study, UC Santa Cruz’s Griggs reports what many scientists have concluded about this approach, economically and physically: “Replenishment is likely not a sustainable strategy to protect most of the world’s developed coastlines at risk to the effects of climate change.”

Days prior to the Encinitas Planning Commission vote in July 2018, news helicopters hovered above the bluff to get aerial footage of the trail. Reporters from San Diego TV stations interviewed Marsh. Preserve Beacon’s collected 835 signatures opposing the project, and as people packed the council chambers that evening, the number rose to 910. An overflow crowd spilled outside.

City staff and geologists presented the project in a straightforward fashion. The bluff was unstable, the parking lot had to retreat, 11 spaces would be lost, and Neptune would narrow slightly. Since Beacon’s gets more than 3,000 visitors on its busiest days, access had to be maintained, per the Coastal Act, and that was best done with stairs. Alternatives from the public had been considered. But soft options, like planting more vegetation on the bluff, wouldn’t stop a landslide. Hard options, like seawalls, wouldn’t get approval from the all-powerful coastal commission. This project would. Ultimately, that’s where the rubber met the road.

When it came time for the general public to speak, after weeks of not getting to, it was like an El Niño storm wave growing, strengthening, and finally exploding at the base of an eroding bluff. Many speakers focused on how special Beacon’s and the trail were. They had raised their kids there. They had made lifelong friends there. The bluff, trail, and beach formed the beating heart of Leucadia. ­Others called the proposed stairway a “monstrosity” that would destroy the community. “We want to ensure that Beacon’s character, charm, and heart is maintained,” pleaded Jade Machado, who broke into tears. She called her community wonderfully eclectic and declared, “We are Beacon’s Beach.” She had attended the previous meetings, and it was clear “the city didn’t understand how important maintaining the character of Beacon’s is to the people who frequent this beach.”

Others hammered on a seeming inconsistency. Labeling Beacon’s an emergency enabled the city to bypass a state-required environmental review and complete the project faster. But if Beacon’s truly presented an emergency, why wasn’t the beach being closed altogether? The city didn’t have a satisfying answer for this. Beyond the fact that an environmental review 12 years earlier resulted in a recommendation to move the parking lot and build a staircase, the best thing anyone could come up with was an unsettling answer from Jim Knowlton, the city’s consulting geologist. He said he did recommend closing Beacon’s in 2006, and doing so nearly cost him his job. Elected officials, like the mayor in the movie Jaws, told him that closing Beacon’s was not an ­option. Still, Knowlton assured the crowd that the bluff could collapse at any moment, an assertion that speaker after speaker refused to believe.

Both Surfrider and managed retreat took a beating that night. Nobody threw more haymakers than a local named Charlie McDermott. At the time, McDermott didn’t live on Neptune, but not long after the battle he purchased a $7.9 million bluff-top home up the street from Beacon’s. (He went on to advocate for legislation that would allow homeowners in Southern California to armor eroding bluffs; the bill went nowhere.) McDermott threatened a lawsuit if the city approved this project. He suggested the city should armor Beacon’s. “Not all of us agree that letting the entire coast collapse so [the government] can take over private property or reclaim public property is a good policy,” he said. The city had “done a backroom deal with Surfrider. We didn’t elect Surfrider,” he added. “Surfrider is not a state agency.” Later, Ed Machado, Jade’s ­father, piled on. “One of my surf-team members at UCLA started the Surfrider Foundation, Glenn Henning,” he said. “I was at the first meeting 40 years ago. I was a member for 40 years until they completely lost touch with what’s going on with a community like Leucadia. I am no longer a member.”

Jaffee couldn’t attend that night, so the burden of confronting these pitchforks fell to his colleague, Chunn-Heer. She explained that there had been no deals “behind closed doors,” that since 2001 Surfrider had clearly stated its intentions about Beacon’s in public meetings and on its website. She explained that bluff erosion is a natural process that cannot be stopped. She said she would have loved all this support for Beacon’s over the past 18 years when Surfrider was fighting off seawalls to save the beach. But the crowd hissed and tried to shout her down, drawing the ire of planning commissioners. ­“Surfrider’s only agenda is enjoying and recreating and accessing the beach,” Chunn-Heer said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

But the commissioners could read the room. After four hours of impassioned speaches, they rejected the project unanimously. The crowd went nuts.

The fight didn’t end there. Commissioners told city staff that if it returned in six months with a design more reflective of Leucadia’s aesthetic, they would consider it. The staff designed a less intrusive wooden staircase. But by then Preserve Beacon’s had serious momentum. Marsh, McDermott, and others spent months strategizing, and when the commission met again in December, the crowd unleashed even more passion. The stairs would destroy Leucadia. Narrowing Neptune was dangerous. Managed retreat was a political ideology. Surfrider was thoroughly corrupt.

The commission again denied the project. Several months later, the city moved the $3.4 million earmarked for Beacon’s to the Leucadia Streetscape project. Save for a bit of trail maintenance and some landscaping, Beacon’s would remain unchanged.

Local kitsch in Leucadia
Local kitsch in Leucadia (Tom Fowlks)
A seawall in Del Mar
A seawall in Del Mar (Tom Fowlks)
The alternative route to the beach
The alternative route to the beach (Tom Fowlks)
The parking lot at Beacon’s
The parking lot at Beacon’s (Tom Fowlks)

After twenty years, three scuttled projects, and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, the Beacon’s parking lot remains at the edge of a bluff geologists deem extremely dangerous. Whether Surfrider or anyone else could have done something different to change that outcome, who knows? “Sentimentality plays a big role,” says Jennifer Savage, Surfrider’s former statewide policy manager. “People feel attached to something. They don’t want to see it change. They can’t see the scientific alternatives.” Chunn-Heer says she approached the Beacon’s fight hoping to educate people. “Often people want things they don’t realize are in conflict. ‘I want a walkable beach’ and ‘I want things to stay the same.’ Well, which do you want more, the trail or the beach? Those things are in conflict.”

Tony Kranz, deputy mayor of Encinitas, says that city planners have produced drawings of different parking-lot configurations, but there are no immediate plans or budget to relocate it. This makes him uneasy. “We’re rolling the dice that the bluff is not going to slide again,” he says. “We get a good rain, it could go at any time. If a 50-foot section decided to go down, how much would it take with it?” As for Encinitas’s long-term plan to deal with sea-level rise, the plan requested by the coastal commission, the city is still working on it. “I won’t predict how that will play out, but I can tell you if you want to generate controversy, bring up managed retreat. Look at Del Mar. That city council retreated very fast. It was barely managed when they retreated because they had a chamber full of people saying, ‘Hell no.’ ”

Along the entire California coast, only a handful of communities have included some form of managed retreat in long-range plans to address sea-level rise. But these are towns like Marina and Pacific Grove, places with little coastal development, or development not threatened by erosion. “Basically, the easier cases have made progress. The harder cases, not so much,” says Charles Lester, former executive director of the commission. “Where plans have been approved, it’s places where there is less tension between private property and public shoreline ­management.”

Donne Brownsey, vice chair of the commission, says planning 75 years into the ­future is mind-boggling for everyone. “Communities are just starting to come to grips with this,” she says. “This isn’t like wildfires. This is a slow-moving disaster. But it’s because we understand the importance of people’s homes and the character of their communities that we want to help them plan. People blame us, but the commission isn’t causing rising seas. Flooding and erosion are going to happen.”

If a community can’t agree on moving a parking lot on a dangerous cliff, how
will entire neighborhoods agree to relocate when sea-level rise ultimately demands it?

What managed retreat should look like exactly is something governments around the world are struggling with. It probably shouldn’t look like the approach that Manila, in the Philippines, has taken over the past decade, with residents of coastal slum communities being lured outside the city to hastily built housing far from their social and employment networks. Many have simply returned to their flood-prone neighborhoods. New Zealand, by contrast, is close to approving world-first legislation that includes mandatory national direction on climate adaptation and, more importantly, provides central government funding for managed retreat. Inevitably, that’s the sticking point—who pays for it? Kranz says Encinitas could never afford to buy the multimillion-dollar homes on Neptune. In October, California governor Gavin Newsom vetoed legislation that would have created a revolving loan program, allowing communities to buy valuable properties, rent them out, and use that money to repay the loans until the houses are no longer habitable.

However this all shakes out, Beacon’s remains a cautionary tale regarding process and community input. Jaffee acknowledges that Surfrider should have done more to win popular support. “We ate humble pie,” he concedes as we descend the trail one day. What he can’t abide are the conspiracy theories, the notion that Surfrider was somehow dealing under the table. “What are we supposed to gain? I’m a volunteer. I lose time from work and family whenever I do Surfrider stuff. How am I benefiting? All I know is you have to follow the science and do the right thing.”

He points out properties along Beacon’s beach where for years Surfrider has successfully fought homeowners who want seawalls, saving Marsh’s favorite beach in the process. He asks: “Where has Ari been for those fights?”

Marsh and I shuffle down the trail at Beacon’s and paddle out to Middles. He’s lent me an eight-foot board, but I’m a novice, and without something the size of a dinner table, I’m pretty much toast. Still, it’s a glorious day, all sun and shimmering water. I flop around while he carves up the waves, and afterward we paddle out beyond the breakers.

We sit on our boards and admire the view of the coast. From here the value of Beacon’s is obvious. It is the only gap on a horizon of solid bluff-top development. The parade of different-colored surfboards up and down the switchback trail from this distance looks like a zigzagging line of Skittles. “There it is, man,” Marsh says. “Beacon’s is all that’s left, the last natural stretch in Leucadia.” For Marsh, the Beacon’s fight wasn’t a story about managed retreat. It was the story of a community of passionate surfers protecting a tiny sliver of the California coast and an iconic trail. But in his next breath, he says, “I don’t know how long this iteration of it will last. Five years? Twenty years?” He knows that Beacon’s will change, that this whole stretch of coast will change. He knows the ocean will do its thing.

Then we surf back into shore.

Paul Kvinta was awarded a 2021 Alicia Patterson Fellowship to report on managed retreat.