Capitola plagued with erosion for decades


There is a crumbling cliff known as "Depot Hill" in Capitola just south of Santa Cruz. It is 70 feet high with a line of houses along the top.

Bert Gibbs owns one of those houses. He's enjoyed the view of Monterey Bay for all of his 80 years.

"My grandfather bought the place in the early 1900s," he said.

But the stretch of land in front of his house is disappearing.

"Little by little, we figure about a foot a year," Gibbs said.

When Bert was a boy, there was a double row of pine trees that created a lover's lane along the cliff. By the 1960s those trees were falling off the edge, but there was still a two lane road in front of the houses.

Now that road is just a foot path.

"It does bother me because I'd like to have it stop," Gibbs said.

Erosion has been an issue since Capitola was founded as a summer resort in 1874. Records at the city's Historical Museum show the developer didn't let anyone build close to the cliff. But when he died, that changed.

"People began with the desire to get a good view, and came closer and closer," museum director Carolyn Swift said.

Over the years, residents considered a lot of ways to save Depot Hill. In the 1960s, there was a plan to build a big hotel along the face of the cliff.

"Beyond that, on the seaward side, they were going to put 1,000 car parking lot, which would have been interesting the first high tide," Swift said.

The hotel was never built and the erosion continued. In the 1980s, they tried placing giant plastic seaweed along the cliff, but it floated away.

"Capitola, I think, was sort of thinking, well we'll give anything a try," Swift said.

By the late 1980s, homeowners were pushing for a seawall, but politics and environmental concerns got in the way.

So now, they've turned to engineer John Kasunich. His plan is to build up the beach below the cliff. At low tide, there's a nice broad beach at the base of Depot Hill. But at high tide it disappears, so waves constantly hit the cliff eating away at the rock.

"Right now we are looking at a wave cut notch at the base of this sea cliff, and you can see it's approximately two and a half feet deep," Kasunich said.

Water seeping through the rock makes the situation even worse. John wants to fill in the notches with a cement-like mixture and then bring in sand to make the beach higher and wider, so waves don't hit the cliff.

The key to making it work is what's called a groin. It's basically a jetty -- a line of rocks sticking out into the water. The rocks keep the sand from washing waOne of the groins was built in the 1960s to build up Capitola's main beach. It works well and John wants to build more of them along Depot Hill.

But it won't be cheap.

"The groin field I think is necessary just to protect depot hill is more than hundreds of thousands - it's in the million," Kasunich said.

The homeowners probably can't afford that. But Gary Wetsal, who moved to the area four years ago, hopes they can get government or conservation groups interested.

"The real key is to convince a large group of people of the value of maintaining our shorelines," he said.

The project would create a mile of wider, more usable beach that would connect Capitola's Commerical Center with a state park on the other side of Depot Hill.

"Everybody involved wants to see Capitola be a viable, successful small beach community and this would be an important part of that. And to lose this important historic site frankly would be a real tragedy I think," Wetsal said.

The idea of building up the beach is still in the early stages. Bert is all for it, but if it doesn't happen, he's not leaving.

"Because I love it here," he said.

Final approval of the groin project will be up to the California Coastal Commission and then of course, the tough issue of how to raise money to pay for it.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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