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Friday, September 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hungry sea devours dreams

Seattle Times staff reporter

NORTH COVE, Pacific County — From Greg Tumidanski's front deck, the steel-gray ribbon of the Pacific Ocean stretches beyond sight. Pelicans divebomb the surf. The wind is gentle and warm.

All this — a cabin on more than seven acres of oceanfront land — he picked up for just $45,000 two years ago.

It was a deal so good it just had to have a catch: Tumidanski expects his oasis on the sea to be gone in about three years, consumed by the omnivorous waves at Washaway Beach.

This two miles of shoreline at the northern confluence of the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay, 12 miles south of Westport, is believed to be the fastest-eroding beach on the Pacific Coast. It has lost about 65 feet a year to the sea since the late 1800s. More than 100 homes, including the entire town of North Cove, have already disappeared, many of them in the past 20 years.

Yet despite the very public destruction, official warnings and a decade-old building moratorium, people such as Tumidanski keep putting down good money for property here. Sixty-five parcels have changed hands in the past six years, long after it became virtually impossible to buy a homeowner's policy.

It's a perverse real-estate calculus: the closer to the water, the cheaper the land. Beachfront can be had for $500, but it might not survive the winter. On the other hand, property a quarter-mile inland can fetch $100,000 or more. After all, it might last as long as a couple of decades.

"You tell yourself, this property is usually for the rich," Tumidanski said as he surveyed the view from his deck.

"This view, even for a few years, is worth it."

Aptly named

As its name proves, Washaway Beach has not been a secret. As the northern channel of Willapa Bay carves away land so that it can empty more efficiently into the Pacific, one home after another has slid into the ocean.

Its historic name is Cape Shoalwater, and people two decades ago talked about saving it. But today, the cape is largely gone and so is any real hope of help from local, state and federal governments.

More than $24 million has been spent to protect Highway 105 nearby, and $12 million is planned to shelter the Shoalwater Bay Indian reservation just to the south. But there are no plans to protect the property at Washaway Beach.

Today, it's an eerie graveyard of real estate. Dozens of rusting water pipes, chunks of foundation and pieces of asphalt sprout from the sand. Up the beach, some of the remaining properties look mostly abandoned, placidly waiting their turn to slide away.

Protecting what's left would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Mike DeSimone, the head planner for Pacific County.

"If you talk about the value of the land and improvements, you'd pay more to protect what's there than it's worth," he said. "It's hard to justify spending that kind of money."

That rankles Tumidanski and other property owners.

"If they built a rock wall, they'd see million-dollar homes here," Tumidanski said.

A century of erosion

A century ago, there was a sandy spit in front of what is now Tumidanski's home. It swooped more than two miles south into Willapa Bay, and a hundred people settled the town of North Cove. They built homes, a cannery, lighthouse, hotel, Coast Guard station, cemetery, school and post office.

It's all now a mile off shore.

George Kaminsky, a coastal engineer for the state Department of Ecology who has studied the erosion since 1993, thinks it has become "self-feeding."

Sand from the Columbia River built up a sandbar at the mouth of Willapa Bay, channeling the water flowing out of the bay straight into Cape Shoalwater. And as the cape eroded, the sand built up the sandbar even more.

Pinpointing the original trigger is difficult, Kaminsky said. But man-made jetties likely have halted a natural sand migration that could reverse the erosion.

Every so often, Kaminsky gets calls from people talking about buying at Washaway Beach.

"A lot of people say, 'There's affordable land out there, and I hope I don't lose it,' " he said. "If it's in their neighbor's yard, it's the neighbor's problem. They don't realize the scale of erosion is so large it's going to be their problem next year."

In the 1960s, local homeowners drew a line in the sand. They lined up 40 junker cars on their ends as a makeshift jetty and sued the Army Corps of Engineers, contending that dredging in the bay had exacerbated the erosion. The jetty blew over in the first storm, and the lawsuit was quickly tossed out.

Yet people continued to buy. In 1962, nearly half of the 188 lots in a newly platted subdivision called Blue Pacific Shores were snatched up the first day for $700 per lot. Many of the buyers were Seattleites eager for vacation property.

The developer, Jean Veldwyk of Seattle, remembers the beach being a 20-minute walk from the lots. Today, all but a sliver of the development is under water.

"No one had any idea it would affect us," said Veldwyk, 76, who still owns 40 acres in the area.

"Like renting a motel room"

Robert Mullen's mom and dad were among the people who bought lots from Veldwyk. Decades later, his childhood memories of beachcombing were still so strong that he bought three lots at Washaway Beach two years ago for $1,400. His parents' property has long ago disappeared.

He said he bought the lots so his four children could grow up with the same fond memories. He acknowledges two of his lots are likely to vanish this winter.

"I've been buying time, and moving back and back," said Mullen, who lives in Auburn and works at Boeing. "I keep hoping something will change and we'll be fine."

Loni Hooper, a property appraiser for Pacific County, hears that a lot.

"You have to forget everything you know about valuing property," she said. "You have to think of it like renting a motel room."

The erosion has provoked an unusual question: When the property washes away, who owns it? The state attorney general has ruled that it reverts to the public. But the county has kept the old ownership records, just in case, by some miracle, the erosion reverses.

"We still have private ownership under water," Hooper said.

Praying for relief

Ladonna Hartke may well be next.

This year her home and garage are about 8 feet from the bluff. Two winters ago, she was about 135 feet away. As the sea came closer, it took her neighbor's lot, then the road, then her front yard and finally a 6-foot-high brick lighthouse her son had built.

"I could be here 10 more years," Hartke said with a shrug. "Or it could go this winter."

The 60-year-old single mother of six bought her home here 12 years ago for $68,000. Back then the beach was about 1,000 feet away.

Even so, she was warned. "I heard it," she said, "but it wasn't real to me."

As winter approaches, Hartke has hauled in sandbags and lumber. But she can't afford to build the kind of elaborate rock fortification that her neighbor Tumidanski has erected.

She said she has prayed that she can live here until her youngest son gets out of high school in June.

"If God answers prayers, it will be here until then."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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