Plans to create a “living shoreline” at Capistrano Beach up to southern Doheny State Beach in Dana Point were approved by the California Coastal Commission Wednesday.

The pilot program will use a combination of cobblestone buried under sand dunes that are topped with vegetation to save the quaint beach areas initially damaged four years ago by a series of strong swells that demolished beachfront basketball courts, parts of the parking lot, a wooden walkway and a restroom at the county-owned Capistrano Beach. Next door, a section of Doheny State Beach’s south parking lot became unusable and a popular pathway is threatened.

Now that the plans for preserving the shoreline are approved, the next hurdle will be finding the estimated $8 million to $14 million it will take to make the project a reality.

If successful, Capistrano Beach will serve as a case study for whether similar efforts could work at other beaches suffering erosion issues – as coastal towns grapple with ways to salvage precious sand space used by both residents and tourists who flock to the coast.

“This, I hope, will be a model,” Coastal Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said. “We really want to follow this closely, it’s a very important project.”

Building the living shoreline will be the first attempt of its kind in Orange County, though similar – and successful – projects have been done in Carlsbad and Ventura.

A combination of factors is contributing to some beaches – especially in South Orange County – losing sand at a rapid pace. Rising sea levels are having more impacts and development at the coast and inland has had lasting affects, while the supply of sand has been disrupted by the concreting of storm channels, the building of dams upstream and recent drought conditions.

OC Parks, the county entity that has owned Capistrano Beach since the 1980s, had resorted to big rock boulders and sand bags to keep the ocean at bay while it figured out a longer-term solution to saving the beach that the community and coastal commissioners would support.

“Three years ago, we were nowhere. This is an incredible effort,” said Brownsey, who commended OC Parks, State Parks and commission staff for working together.

The plan is to build a 1,150-linear-foot cobble berm – 20-feet high and 125-feet wide – with vegetated sand dunes covering it, spanning from the south end of Doheny State Beach to the north end of Capistrano Beach. The dunes would have a maximum height of 25 feet with the sand.

The south end of the beach, which has a parking lot and sits just north of a line of beachfront homes, will still have large boulders to protect the lot – suggested as replacements for sand bags that continue to get battered and torn by the sea.

Mandy Sackett, California policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, said the nonprofit is optimistic the nature-based solution will be successful, but argued against leaving the boulders – which can worsen erosion – on the south end. The group instead supports removing the parking lot to allow the beach to naturally take over, a form of “managed retreat.”

“Every foot of beach space matters,” she said.

OC Parks Planning and Design Manager Natalia Gaerlan countered that when surveyed, 60% of the respondents wanted the lot to remain and found it of value. Parking along Pacific Coast Highway is limited and can be dangerous, she said.

Already, about 55 parking spots have been lost to storm damage.

Officials also said finding funding for the north-end work will be challenging enough, and adding the southern end could hold up the entire project.

The Coastal Commission’s approval on Wednesday has a seven-year expiration and is contingent on OC Parks coming up with a long-term plan for the area.

OC Parks agreed to conduct a monitoring, maintenance and adaptive management plan for a period of five years following construction that includes allowing for replanting the vegetation, reconfiguring the berm or adding sand – or removing the development if the data suggests the pilot project is failing.

The county must also study bird species using the area and monitor the grunions and avoid their seasonally predicted runs.

A study done by the county in 2021 indicated the sand berms will likely have to be nourished regularly and said ultimately, it’s unknown if the plan will even work. “In all cases, the likelihood of success of nature-based solutions is uncertain.”

It’s also unclear where OC Parks will get the sand for the project, with inland sand supplies expensive to truck in, Gaerlan said.

Toni Nelson, founder of advocacy group Capo Cares, said locals have watched the area devastated time and time again, but the plan approved is giving them hope for the small beach.

“We sincerely hope that this works,” she said. “Every day at the beach is precious, thank your for helping us save what we can for as long as we can.”