Cannon Beach Dunes: Protection or View Enhancement?

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Dunes at Breakers Point During King Tide January 2018. Courtesy ORCA

The City of Cannon Beach sits just behind the rim of silvery sand dunes topped by European beach grass planted to stabilize them. But even so, sand moves in a littoral cell yearly and on larger time cycles, and the dunes in front of Cannon Beach are no exception. In the late 1990s, the dunes eroded so severely that Cannon Beach residents were worried about losing them entirely. But in the last few years they began building up at the north side of town, and obstructing the ocean views of well-heeled condominiums built just behind them.

Dune-Grading Begins in Cannon Beach

Prior to 1998, Cannon Beach allowed no dune-grading. But starting in that year, Breakers Point Homeowners Association requested, and received, permission to grade the state-owned foredunes in front of the development for view enhancement. They furnished a localized sand study to the City as part of the application. Eighteen years later, that sand study was still the only one in Cannon Beach, even though it expired in 2008. Yet the City granted many other applications for foredune-grading since 1997, to Breakers Point Homeowners Association and Oceanside Homeowners Association, permitting dune-grading not once but multiple times. The grading requests have been in the range of 4,000 to 8,000 cubic yards. The unwanted sand was usually spread along the intertidal zone to be washed into the sea.

Dune-Grading Expands and Cannon Beach Authorizes a Sand Study

But in 2014 Breakers Point decided to request grading of up to 74,000 cubic yards of sand — ten times more than had ever been allowed. This sparked an outcry in Cannon Beach, and residents flocked to local hearings. Both the Planning Commission and City Council turned down this massive request by Breakers Point, after impassioned testimony about harm to the dunes and the importance of the dunes as Cannon Beach’s first line of defense against the ocean. Subsequently, Cannon Beach decided to pay for a study of sand movement in the entire littoral cell, and hired the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to do it. The draft study was completed in late 2017. We applaud Cannon Beach for its foresight in recognizing that a new sand study is desperately needed — and stepping up to pay for it.

Breakers Point and Cannon Beach Grade the Dunes Illegally and Get a Violation

Breakers Point and Cannon Beach collaborated in extensive illegal storm-related dune-grading in December 2015 to protect the crumbling bank of nearby Ecola Creek. They removed an entire dune on Breakers Point property, took clean sand from the publicly-owned ocean shore to fill the hole, and graded flat the whole adjacent beach access area, denuding it of European beach grass in the process. BP and Cannon Beach acted illegally and without authorization from the Parks Department, which manages the ocean shore. In May 2016, OPRD issued a Notice of Violation, and ordered both Breakers Point and Cannon Beach to restore the public dunes to the original hummocky appearance, and plant it with European beach grass as before. They had to complete the work by November 2016, which they did.

This action highlights the problem of the long-standing erosion in the Ecola Creek estuary, which happens continuously because Breakers Point was built too near the edge. Breakers later placed a soft “burrito” against the eroded area, with willow tree plantings, to stabilize the sandbank. It did not work, and was washed away by January 2018. This is not surprising: Breakers Point did not hire an engineer or geologist who understood estuarine dynamics. The best solution for this area would probably be a cobble berm, perhaps with a burrito atop it. Both the city and the Homeowners Association have an interest in stabilizing this weak place, and ORCA hopes they will collaborate in creating a long-lasting solution.

The Future of the Dunes

Cannon Beach is currently holding public hearings to craft new policies for dune-grading. The city hired the Columbia River Estuary Task Force (CREST) to write a draft foredune management plan. Unfortunately, the city directed CREST to begin with the assumption that Cannon Beach will allow dune-grading for view enhancement. But in fact, Cannon Beach can and should revisit the question of whether dune-grading will be allowed at all for view purposes. Given Cannon Beach’s vulnerability to the sea, it is an important policy question.

New dune-grading policies need to first determine whether view enhancement is a legitimate goal. If so, the amount of dune-grading allowed should be very minimal. All sand must remain in the littoral cell. Replanting must be with European beach grass, an invasive that is unfortunately necessary to stabilize dunes adequately in built-up areas. American beach grass makes for flatter dunes and much more blowing sand, which is unfair to neighbors. This is especially true at the north end of town, as Chapman Point HOA cannot grade due to a deed restriction. They should not be the recipient of sand from poor practices at Breakers Point to the south.

The foredunes belong to all Oregonians. They are an essential part of Cannon Beach’s beauty, and its economy as well. ORCA encourages all to remember that “the view” includes the thousands of visitors and residents who live in or come to Cannon Beach for the view of the dunes from the beach. Graded dunes are, frankly, ugly. They also do not necessarily protect the city in king tides and storms. The fate of the dunes must be a collaborative, cooperative process, because dune management affects all residents and visitors.

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