Tierra del Mar isn’t much of a destination, which has long been much of its charm.
It’s a desolate beach on the Oregon coast, three unincorporated miles upwind from Pacific City. Tierra del Mar doesn’t have cell-phone service, just eagles over the beach, owls in the dense woods, and residents who pay to keep the streetlights on along Sandlake Road.
They also consider their homes family heirlooms, which is why they’re pretty steamed at Facebook.
“In the middle of this serenity,” Lynnae Ruttledge says, “Facebook bought some property and decided to do some industrial drilling.”
Last October, Facebook – through its Edge Cable Holdings subsidiary – bought an undeveloped beachfront lot from former University of Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington for $495,000.
The $140-billion company then submitted applications to Tillamook County and the state to use that residential-zoned property as the eastern terminus for one of its trans-oceanic fiber-optic cables.
If the conditional-use permit is approved, Facebook says it will have drilling equipment in Tierra del Mar for up to 34 days. And unfortunately for Tierra del Mar, permitting for these submarine cables is cake in Oregon, compared to California.
The horizontal directional drilling operation will fashion a conduit 30-to-75 feet below the ground and 3,000 feet out to sea, where it will connect with the Jupiter cable system.
The State Land Board is good with all that. The county Planning Commission has yet to schedule a public hearing. Informing Facebook in April that its original permit application was incomplete, Sarah Absher, the county planning director, urged the company to consider “expanding” its argument that the dig is consistent with the Tillamook County Comprehensive Plan.
Facebook would have you believe this is business as usual. Four similar submarine cables are docked in Pacific City. When drilling at Tierra del Mar is complete, it argues, the only visible evidence will be a manhole cover in the dunes.
Homeowners disagree. They’re curious how Facebook gets away with labeling itself a public utility on its permit application.
They worry about drilling accidents and drilling chemicals. And they don’t understand why this submarine cable, unlike the four in Pacific City, will emerge from the sea in a neighborhood full of single-family homes.
“The key issue here is land-use,” says Ruttledge, who worked for decades in vocational rehabilitation and was appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Obama in 2014. “Why would you drill on a residential lot?”
While Facebook left homeowners in the dark on site selection, it worked closely with the Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee, which has long negotiated safe passage for fiber-optic cables through coastal fishing grounds.
Scott McMullen, the OFCC’s executive director, said the committee recommended landing the cable on a small lake southeast of the community: “We never suggested it should be Tierra del Mar.”
While McMullen also says it’s clear Edge Cable will eventually bring a second cable to the neighborhood, he doesn’t understand the community’s vehement objections.
“This is the first time I’m aware of where people have testified against a submarine cable project,” McMullen said. “It’s really unfortunate the neighborhood is upset. During the drilling, there will be some noise for 15 to 20 days, but if they can get past that, I believe the property will be left vacant for the life of the cable. It may be the best neighbor they’ve ever had.”
Ruttledge said everyone in Tierra del Mar might feel just as neighborly if Facebook had “engaged with us in the same manner they did with the local fishing community.
“I’m in my 70s, and I remember a statement from the ‘60s: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,’” Ruttledge says.
“I hate Facebook, but I’d be opposed to any cable project where someone wanted to abuse the land-use ordinances of Tillamook County and do a commercial venture on a residential lot.”
Facebook shouldn’t be able to pass itself off as a public utility, notes Patricia Rogers, who has shared a home adjacent to the property for 29 years. And, she adds, Oregon Coast residents shouldn’t lose sleep wondering which tech giant has designs on the lot next door.
“We accept the inevitability of submarine cables. We don’t want to take away jobs,” Rogers says. “But if this goes through on that piece of private property, it sets a precedent. All bets are off anywhere on the Oregon Coast.”
— Steve Duin