Goal 18 of the Land use laws protects Oregon’s beaches and dunes. It is one of the more contentious of the land use goals, and probably tops the list of controversial goals applying specifically to the coast.
The goal is complex, but fundamentally its purpose is to protect beach and dune resources, and reduce exposure to hazards in the dynamic oceanfront environment that characterizes the Oregon coastline. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department manages the ocean shore and issues permits for dune-altering activities such as beach armoring and foredune grading for views. OPRD is tasked with only issuing permits that conform to local comprehensive plans, and also following its own Ocean Shore Management Plan. Local governments, for their part, must inventory their beaches and dunes. Goal 18 has, and continues to, prohibit development on beaches, active foredunes and dunes subject to severe erosion and flooding.
One of the most controversial aspects of Goal 18 is the regulation of beachfront protective structures (BPS). This can include “hard armoring,” most commonly the use of large boulders known as “riprap,” but also seawalls and cobble berms; and “soft armoring,” which includes soft burritos, willow plantings and similar less structurally intrusive options. The reason for restricting beach hardening is to limit the accelerated beach erosion known to occur where the beach is hardened – essentially, ti keep Oregon’s beaches as natural as possible.
Part of the contention stems from Goal 18 itself, as the goal does not define “beachfront protective structure.” Another difficulty is that the Goal allows BPS only where development existed prior to January 1, 1977: this has essentially placed a cap on shoreline hardening, thus limiting its cumulative impacts. However, the language that defines “pre-1977 development” is somewhat vague, though it clearly includes houses and commercial buildings, and vacant subdivision lots which are physically improved by street construction and provision of utilities.
But increasingly the biggest problem with Goal 18 is that in a time of global warming, sea level rise and more intense coastal storms, more and more properties on the coast are, and will be, impacted by coastal erosion. This in turn is leading to louder cries for beach hardening structures as coastal properties are imperiled by erosion.
The Gleneden Beach Seawall
On February 27, 2021, a seawall collapsed in the Gleneden Beach area, leaving several houses literally dangling over the cliff edge. Emergency stabilization of the buildings immediately followed. Shortly thereafter the affected landowners – four private houses, Worldmark Gleneden Resort and SeaRidge Condominiums – applied for an Exception to Goal 18, allowing them to place riprap against the eroding cliff. There were several intense hearings in Lincoln County, but ultimately all parties agreed the applicants should receive an Exception, and the Board of Commissioners approved it. The fundamental reason is that this littoral cell is already heavily riprapped – these are some of the only lots not riprapped in the Gleneden Beach area. Thus, the state policy of protecting beaches from erosion caused by riprap cannot be successful here, so there is no reason to deny an Exception for these buildings, all of them in peril of imminent collapse from bluff erosion.
The Pine Beach Request
Pine Beach is a rural subdivision south of Shorewood RV Park in Tillamook County. Fifteen homeowners in 2021 applied for a Goal 18 Exception to place 880 feet of riprap in front of the houses and in front of the foredune. None of the houses had been built prior to 1977, so an Exception would be required. Unlike in Lincoln County, this application was very contentious. None of the houses were near the sea or suffering erosion, and there was a substantial foredune and trees above the vegetation line. Less than 30% of this littoral cell is currently armored by protective structures. The applicants’ analysis required by state law was sketchy and incomplete, especially with respect to economic impacts, and the relationship of the properties to nearby Shorewood RV Park, which is heavily riprapped.
Nevertheless, the Tillamook County Board of Commissioners approved the Exception, on the flimsy grounds that wave runup and ocean flooding had worsened in the area since 1994; and that since up to 90% of the littoral cell is eligible for protective structures (though very little is actually armored), there are no natural beach structures to be protected from hardening! Worst of all, even as three conservation organizations (including ORCA) filed appeals of the decision with the Land Use Board of Appeals, the applicants decided to put in the riprap immediately. They ripped out all the trees and installed the full amount of riprap allowed under the Tillamook County permit. If LUBA overturns the permit, the applicants will likely have to remove the entire riprap structure they so hurriedly put in place.
The Future of Goal 18
Goal 18 exceptions are rare, but policymakers’ concern is also how best to use its processes on an ever-changing coastline, especially in a time of climate change. Neither a local government, nor the state, has a responsibility to protect private property development built in high hazard zones; but the larger policy discussions about the best actions to take as sea levels rise have not yet occurred.