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
After literally years of hearings on efforts to upgrade Cannon Beach’s policy on dune-grading for views, City Council decided, by unanimous vote in October 2019, to end all grading for view protection and enhancement. This vote was a long time coming. The city’s decision-makers had watched some oceanfront homeowners, especially at Breakers Point condominiums, use strategies both legal and illegal to angle for dune-grading permits and opportunities to grade larger amounts. During hearings on revising its policies, Cannon Beach watched oceanfront owners describe how important views were, threaten legal action, and make statements that distorted the facts. The controversy ripped the town apart. City Council finally decided the only way out was to end the city’s 21-year experiment with view grading, treat everybody equally, and protect the public dunes. Now only remedial or maintenance grading will be allowed, as they always have been and will continue to be.
View Grading Begins in 1998 and Continues in Cannon Beach
Prior to 1998, Cannon Beach allowed no view 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, to Breakers Point Homeowners Association and Oceanside Homeowners Association, permitting dune-grading not once but multiple times. The grading requests were 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. 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. Subsequently, Cannon Beach, much to its credit, 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.
Breakers Point and Cannon Beach Grade the Dunes Illegally in 2015 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 which occasionally threatens buried infrastructure. But it also provided an opportunity to grade for view enhancement. 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.
The Future of the Dunes
The foredunes belong to all Oregonians. They are an essential part of Cannon Beach’s beauty, and its economy as well. “The view” includes the experiences of 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 protect the city in king tides and storms like taller dunes do, an especially important consideration in this era of climate change. Now that Cannon Beach has taken the courageous step of ending view grading, it is to be hoped that other communities fronting the dunes will consider doing likewise.