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Nature vs. Neighborhood Along Oregon Coast

Luxury community perched on an eroding cliff struggles to save its homes from ruin.

This winter, El Nio has left an indelible mark on pre-Christian history and 20th-century civilization along Oregon's north coast.

Tree stumps dating back to the time of Jesus are reappearing along beaches scoured by recent storms - ancient reminders that nature works powerfully in a millennial time frame. Meanwhile, high on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean, dozens of families wait to see if their new homes now perched on an eroding dune will survive the ocean's power.

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The story raises questions about environmental protection versus property rights, the problems that rural areas can have in dealing with development in such scenic areas, and the inevitable legal and political struggles over who's responsible when nature confounds what someone has spent years working for and dreaming about.

Illustrated more broadly here are increasing concerns about rapid population growth all along US coasts - where more than half of the population is packed into just 17 percent of the land area.

On the Oregon coast

The Oregon story is centered on The Capes housing development near Netarts Bay in Tillamook County, about 90 miles west of Portland. Since 1992, some 130 townhouses and single-family homes have been built on 79 acres overlooking the Pacific.

Opponents say the exclusive development caters to the wealthy - pointing out that it has homes priced as high as $400,000, and one of them is owned by retired US Sen. Mark Hatfield. Others note that in many cases, several families have pooled resources to purchase a weekend getaway they share.

No one, however, disputes the beauty and serenity of the area.

"It's a beautiful, rugged part of the Oregon coast without the tourist traps," says Capes homeowner Chuck Holliman. "It's the way Oregon used to be."

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But as El Nio has teamed up with the usual rough winter weather to assault the beach below, sand dunes disappeared into the sea and gaping cracks appeared on the bluff just a few feet from some of the houses.

Officials declared 32 housing units unsafe for occupancy, and homeowners began efforts to secure the area from further weather-related danger.

Their first plan was to haul in many truckloads of large rocks - known as riprap - to be placed as a temporary barrier against the crashing waves undermining the sandy bluff.

But county commissioners and Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) said that option is illegal. They cited a 1977 state law that bans the use of riprap to protect property built after that year. The concern is that moving rocks could just transfer the problem elsewhere, affecting sand dunes and perhaps endangering property in other locations, geologists say.

Frustrated developers and homeowners say they followed all the rules in building where they did, so they should not be denied emergency help now.

"We did engineering studies, we drilled test wells, we got reports from geologists," says Franklin Piacentini, a retired dentist who bought the property 19 years ago. "We went before the county five times and did everything [the commissioners] wanted us to do."

Others say officials in rural Tillamook County, a place known mostly for logging, fishing, and farming, had to rely on the developers' experts in making decisions - and that perhaps they were influenced by the attractiveness of new economic development at a time when the resource-based economy was waning.

Although there was no strong opposition at the time the development was approved, some local residents say they had misgivings about building so close to the edge of the bluff.

"I feel sorry for the homeowners, but it just was never a good idea to build up there in the first place," says Ron Hofman, who lives near The Capes.

The question now is, what should be done - within Oregon's environmental-protection laws - to protect the homes?

The owners are hoping to get approval for a number of measures including securing the top of the bluff and filling with sand a half-mile-wide bowl that formed at the base of the bluff.

Tom Hendrickson, president of The Capes homeowners association, says these measures could be done within state law. "We're looking for a compromise, [but] we're not asking for a penny from the government," he says. The issue is now being decided by county commissioners.

Still, Mr. Hendrickson says it would be a "very expensive operation," probably between $3 million and $4 million. And while the homeowners are prepared to pay part of the costs, they also are likely to seek compensation from what lawyers call "potentially responsible parties" - engineers, builders, and the developers.

Built to last?

But experts say there is no certainty that the scheme will hold back the forces of nature forever. James Good, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University who specializes in coastal resources, says El Nio-class weather patterns have hit the Pacific coast every eight or nine years for the past 600 years.

"We're going to continue to have these problems as long as we have El Nios," says Dr. Good. And beyond that, as the 2,000-year-old stumps now emerging from the surf show, powerful earthquakes (which likely killed the trees) are also possible here.

Part of the answer, says Good, is stricter regulations on where structures can be built along the coast - in particular, how close to potentially unstable shorelines. But that, he acknowledges, might prevent some current lot owners from building their dream home, which, in turn, could bring a gale of property-rights claims.

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