Wetsuit pioneer Jack O'Neill made a career of protecting surfers from the ocean's chilly waters.
By Kurtis Alexander
PLEASURE POINT -- Wetsuit pioneer Jack O'Neill made a career of protecting surfers from the ocean's chilly waters. Now he's trying to protect himself from its fury.
The 87-year-old Santa Cruz icon says his home on East Cliff Drive is threatened by damaging down-coast currents as a result of a new 1,100-foot-seawall being built by the county. O'Neill claims his best defense is a seawall of his own, and he's asking state regulators for permission to build one.
"I was satisfied with my house the way it was," O'Neill said Wednesday, looking out at the emerging seawall that runs up against his property. "But the wall creates a little hurricane when the sand and sea get washed down, and it eats out what's at the end."
O'Neill, who moved to the Santa Cruz area in the late '50s to open a surf shop, has lived in the house he's now trying to protect for 40 years. The two-story home, while modestly built, is one of few that sits directly on the bluffs above Pleasure Point's famed surf breaks and is a longtime landmark on the county shoreline.
"It's a fantastic spot," O'Neill said from his sofa, which provides a 180-degree view of the bay that inspired the international wetsuit company he built and has since passed on to his son, Pat, to run.
O'Neill's seawall plans call for expansion of the county's concrete seawall around his property. The work, which he says will cost him at least $1 million, involves removing the rock and riprap that now offers him protection from the waves and replacing them with a sturdier wall contoured around his home.
Like the county seawall, which is in its final stage of construction, O'Neill's wall would be sculpted and colored to look like the bluffs.
The California Coastal Commission is scheduled to make a decision on O'Neill's proposal next week.
"He's in a very vulnerable spot," said commission planner Susan Craig, noting that seawalls often deflect wave energy to nearby areas that are not armored with concrete. "This new seawall could provide him better protection over time."
Commission planners are recommending their governing board approve the project at its meeting Wednesday in San Luis Obispo, with the proposals O'Neill has made for the public.
One is a path in front of the seawall for beachgoers to use during low tide. Another is making sure the parcel next to his property, which he also owns and is commonly called the "dirt farm," is not developed and remains open to people walking along the bluff top.
Surfrider Foundation regional manager Sarah Damrom, whose organization fought unsuccessfully to stop the county seawall, reluctantly said she would not oppose O'Neill's plans.
"We don't support armoring the coast there. However fighting things piecemeal doesn't seem like it's going to solve the problem," she said.
Surfrider and other environmental groups have challenged the rationale for seawalls, noting they only deflect the erosion problem. But with the numerous seawalls on the coast, critics have softened their protest, particularly to smaller projects, and have instead sought to sway planners to their line of thinking.
Some worry seawalls, like the ones at Pleasure Point, could dampen the waves the surf community has come to rely on.
A surfer coming up from the beach Wednesday, though, didn't concern himself with that potential.
"Hey, it's Jack O'Neill's house," he said. "Let him do what he needs."