Drifting beach sand is irritating to far more than sensitive eyes and nether regions in Cannon Beach, where growing dunes are interfering with views and drainage.

Faced with conflicting wishes among constituents and the Planning Commission, the City Council is deferring a decision for up to two years while a sand management plan is completed.

Reflecting established public policy on many coastlines, planning commissioners advocate leaving the primary westward dune alone. If left to itself and not pierced by road cuts or graded to maintain yards and views, this primary dune acts as a natural berm between the inland and the ocean. The primary dune, ideally, can turn back storm surges and perhaps even some tsunamis.

However, seashore homeowners understandably regard the dune with annoyance. It is not a static geological feature, instead growing by inches a year as winds and waves deposit additional sand within its shelter. Before the mid-20th century, the seashore dunes were flattened out and redistributed from time to time. But the biological success of invasive European beach grass has drastically changed the ways in which sand is retained on the primary dune.

Stabilized by the grass, coastal dunes both south and north of the mouth of the Columbia have grown extensively in recent decades. Nearest the river, sands have greatly expanded the land area — most famously in Seaview, Wash., where epic political battles have been fought over whether to permit residential development in areas that were washed by ocean waves a century ago. Farther from the river’s mouth, dune building tends to be more vertical than horizontal. In Surfside, Wash., near the north end of the Long Beach Peninsula, 20 years ago the identical fight played out over dune maintenance, with Pacific County at that time tacitly deciding to defer to the status quo of letting homeowners preserve their views.

At the Leadbetter Point Unit of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, the federal government carries out an active campaign of dune flattening, in order to create something like the natural conditions preferred by federally protected sandy plovers, a small bird in trouble all along the West Coast.

Historical landforms on the Clatsop Plains and Long Beach Peninsula show that large north-south dunes do predate the European beach grass era. However, it is possible the exact mechanism at play in building these dunes is unclear. They may be a consequence of our region legacy of enormous tsunami events every few centuries or some combination of factors. In essence, local coastal communities are built on material that would be a huge, flat delta if not for the fact that the energetic Pacific Ocean is constantly smashing it against the shore.

This winter’s active El Niño pattern has the potential of inflicting substantial erosion on Pacific Northwest beaches. It will be worth watching to see whether this reverses some of the dune-building process in Cannon Beach. A similar strong El Niño in the 1990s took a substantial bite out of dunes north of the Columbia.

Overall, sand is a valuable asset here at the interface between land and ocean, but one that individuals and agencies often find necessary to actively manage. Cannon Beach is right to take its time in gathering community advice on the matter. City leaders and citizens will have to weigh competing interests: Flood protection, one type of wildlife habitat versus another, and homeowners’ strong desire to preserve economically valuable views.

Political upset and litigation are a near certainty. But thorough public discourse will eliminate the element of surprise in whatever decisions are made.

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