Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Right of Way

By Rob Elder

On the coast of northern Sonoma County, where the Pacific Ocean batters rocky cliffs, a legal and ethical dilemma is emerging as pieces of shoreline break loose and tumble into the sea. Since California is a coastal state from top to bottom, the situation has statewide implications.

A little more than years ago, a private community known as The Sea Ranch was allowed to build houses along this 10-mile strip of coast. In return, the public was granted a permanent easement to use 3.5 miles of bluff-top trail at the north end of The Sea Ranch. The agreement, passed into law in the Bane Bill, also required five public rights of way within The Sea Ranch from Highway One to the coast.

But since then, waves have torn away huge chunks of land. In one spot, the trail itself recently slid into the ocean. That place, and several others where the cliffs' edge is only a few yards from the trail and coming ever closer, are within the 3.5 miles where public access is required.

For now, the section where the trail collapsed is closed to the public. Sea Ranchers skirt around the cave-in, detouring through a fellow resident's front yard.

While Sonoma County's Parks Department tries to decide what to do, Kate MacIntyre, chair of The Sea Ranch Association board, vows not to give an inch.

"We should reject any request for additional use of Sea Ranch lands," she declares, quoting the original deal, embodied in legislation known as the Bane Bill: "no additional public access requirements shall be imposed at The Sea Ranch."

This reminds me of a story about Jon Yardley, book editor of the Washington Post. According to his sister, when they were children their father every Sunday gave each of them two nickels, one to put in the collection plate and one to buy an ice cream cone after church. As they crossed a little bridge over a creek on one Sunday morning, Jon tripped and one coin flew from his hand, dropped between the planks of the bridge, and was lost in the creek.

Whereupon, his sister says, Jon immediately exclaimed: "Oops! There goes God's nickel!"

In this case, is the public's nickel the one that now lies beneath the waves, or is it the new edge of the continent? It seems harsh to say that public access was lost; yet what if the bluffs continue to erode until more and more Sea Ranch "commons" (community property) and perhaps even some homes would be taken to provide a new path? That's harsher.

I live on The Sea Ranch, so I'm affected, although my property is not threatened. As a practical matter I'd like to see a compromise. But I can't think of one.

That's what makes this such a dilemma. It seems unfair for the government to try to amend the agreement retroactively. But clearly the intent of the law was to provide public access to the coast.

The entire California coastline is eroding bit by bit, and existing arrangements on who has what access are bound to become outmoded as the coast erodes and changes shape.

Manmade trails and manmade laws are always impermanent where the sea attacks the continent. Day in and day out, year in and year out, the Pacific never stops pounding.

Rob Elder is senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at
Santa Clara University. He lives on The Sea Ranch

This article appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday, February 2, 2004.

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