In January 2016, the Planning Commission for the City of Pacifica, California, convened to vote on a coastal development permit authorizing demolition of an apartment building located along the seaside town’s northern bluffs before it avalanched in a jumble of concrete, stucco, and steel hundreds of feet down to the beach below. The residents of these red-tagged apartments had already been evacuated. As chair, I brought the meeting to order and heard the City’s engineers report that demolition was necessary with a series of anticipated storms on the way that would likely significantly weaken the bluffs—wave energy would predictably carve out the base from below and stormwater cascading over the top of the bluff would erode its face from above. This costly demolition was no small undertaking for Pacifica, a largely blue-collar town of 40,000 located 20 minutes south of San Francisco on Highway 1. Although so close to the United States’ epicenter of wealth and technology, Pacifica’s bedroom community status makes it overwhelmingly reliant on property tax revenues for its budget. The 2008 recession and resulting property devaluations had brought the City near bankruptcy. Yet, the City had seen the disastrous results of apartment buildings crashing to the sea some years earlier, and so we voted unanimously to approve the City’s demolition request. Four months later we would vote again on an emergency measure to move the last of three modest homes (this one 910 square feet) off another bluff before it too fell into the ocean.
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