County: Erosion potential not an emergency situation
Authorities are investigating the illegal rerouting of Gilbert Creek after the southern bank of its mouth became a man-made berm of chewed up dirt, rock, brush and giant logs over a single weekend last month.
The excavated material spans the width of a football field and was piled up just south of where this Del Norte County waterway meets the Pacific, roughly one mile from the Oregon border. The grading appears to be an attempt to direct the freshwater away from an unstable cliff side, which supports a residential subdivision.
On the low-lying side of Gilbert Creek sits another house, where hundreds of new sandbags now dominate the denuded bank.
Days before the illegal grading occurred, property owners from the high side petitioned the county for an emergency grading permit. County planners determined the situation did not qualify for emergency status and suggested the applicants apply for a regular coastal development permit.
The county’s response said that since the bluff-top petitioners did not receive consent from the property owner on the other side of Gilbert Creek, where much of the work would occur, it would be illegal for the county to issue a permit.
The emergency request from Sylvia and Ronald Lorenzetti, Al and Ruth Fries and Don and Rogie Shutt outlines a plan to hire an excavator large enough to accomplish creek realignment before Nov. 15. These property owners have denied any involvement in the illegal grading.
After Department of Fish and Game Warden Rick Banko sent a letter notifying them that it’s illegal to significantly modify a streambed without planing and permitting the job, Albert and Ruth Fries fired off a response asking “for a retraction and an apology,” saying, “We have not, nor has anyone that we have employed, made any modifications to Gilbert Creek.”
When the home closest to the eroding bluff was built in 2003 by the Fries family, Albert said “this was the perfect lot for us.”
At that time, Gilbert Creek flowed directly west from the Highway 101 bridge and erosion to their property wasn’t a concern, Fries said.
Half of an acre reportedly fell into the creek from the adjacent vacant lot last winter.
A 1994 geotechnical report on the subdivision’s history of bluff retreat states that “these lots are adequately protected from bluff failure for the next 40 to 50 years,” according to the county’s response letter.
But the letter goes on to cite the report’s more cautionary message pointing out the possibility that bluff tops could be affected by storms, El Niños and great earthquakes. “Consequently, each future owner of a home in this subdivision must be willing to assume the risk associated with owning a bluff-top home,” the 1994 report states.
Fish and Game, the California Coastal Commission, Caltrans and the county all inspected the site after the grading occurred.
The county has the jurisdiction for the creek above mean high tide line, the Coastal Commission’s authority is for everything below, and Fish and Game regulates any streambed alteration.
“At this point we are really relying on the Department of Fish and Game because as a state agency they have the resources for an investigation,” said Heidi Kunstal, Del Norte County deputy director of building and planning.
Fish and Game has opened a criminal investigation but could not be reached for comment.
Nancy Cave, Coastal Commission enforcement supervisor for Northern California, said it’s a civil violation within their purview. She has also opened an investigation, but the county still must take the lead on permitting — if an after-the-fact permit makes sense.
“Our process would work with parties involved to see if they would voluntarily come in with a restoration project, and we’d work with them from there,” Cave said.