Homeowners turn the tide in Del Mar’s planning for sea-level rise

Awash in backlash from homeowners demanding a wholesale rethink of two years’ work, Del Mar has changed course midstream in its plans to face the threats posed by rising oceans, narrowing beaches and increasingly severe floods.

The city’s committee on sea-level rise has radically rewritten its adaptation plan, a package of recommendations that will lay the groundwork for how Del Mar sets policies and initiates responses to the pressures of climate change, from beach and bluff erosion to offshore sand deposits to controlling the channel and shoreline of the San Dieguito River.

Taken together, the changes mark a pronounced shift toward the primacy of private property, and away from environmental interests — an abrupt about-face on some of the key tenets the committee had assumed when it started meeting in July 2015.

Early on, the Sea-Level Rise Stakeholder-Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) focused on where and how much Del Mar will be vulnerable to rising seas and river flooding. In September 2016, the committee’s consultant produced a first draft of the adaptation plan, with the intent that the committee would mold it to fit Del Mar.

After word spread from neighbor to neighbor that the plan included property removal as an option, enraged homeowners from Del Mar’s “beach colony” — several hundred homes roughly between 15th and 29th streets — flooded the committee’s August meeting, angrily denouncing the plan’s impact on the $1 billion neighborhood. The mere mention of property removal will devastate property values in Del Mar’s priciest enclave, they say.

Their outrage widened at STAC’s September meeting when it became clear that committee members were not well-versed in Del Mar’s Beach Preservation Initiative, a hard-fought 1988 referendum that both limits and guarantees homeowners’ rights to build and maintain seawalls.

In the face of that outcry, STAC chairwoman Terry Gaasterland conceded that the plan taking shape was deaf to the particulars of Del Mar’s history and topography. She and three other STAC members formed a subcommittee that spent hundreds of hours rewriting the plan to incorporate those concerns, culminating in the draft posted to the city’s website on Oct. 11.

Foremost among the changes is that strategies of “planned retreat” — in which homes would be removed — have been expunged altogether. The new draft acknowledges only the possibility of relocating city-owned infrastructure, such as the fire station and sewer pump station on San Dieguito Drive or sewer lines on the bluffs — and even on that, the new draft is “deliberately vague,” Gaasterland said.

The other momentous change: the new draft redoubles Del Mar’s commitment to seawalls. Throughout its two years of work, STAC made pains to avoid and de-emphasize seawalls as much as possible. The adaptation plan now embraces the seawalls that armor nearly every inch of oceanfront from Powerhouse Park to the river mouth as essential to Del Mar’s very existence.

In few other Southern California communities do homes sit directly on the beach, level with the ocean. Meanwhile, a huge swath of the 30-block area behind the oceanfront sits lower than the first row of homes — in some places by as much as six feet.

Beach colony residents liken the predicament to Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana — a metaphor in which Del Mar’s seawalls play the role of the dikes that had guarded New Orleans’ 9th Ward until Hurricane Katrina. Without the seawalls, residents say, the beach colony is one storm away from becoming a shallow lake.

“These seawalls have been here since the ’80s and they have prevented extreme flooding events ever since the 1983 flood,” Gaasterland said. “The stand we’re taking now is that we have a 100-year-old community of over 300 houses in the northern part of Del Mar that is subject to flooding from both sea and river, and preserving that community for as long as we can is of the utmost importance.”

And whereas the previous draft was ambivalent toward the effectiveness of replenishing beaches and building reefs and groins to trap ocean sand, the new draft thrusts those strategies to the top of the city’s priorities — not in some abstract future but right away.

“We must preserve the beach starting now,” Gaasterland said.

Another new wrinkle is a call for Del Mar to immediately launch a wide-ranging program for annual monitoring of beach width, flood risk, the frequency of extreme weather events, wildlife loss and retreat in the San Dieguito Lagoon, and sediment levels in the river channel.

Notably absent from the recommended monitoring: sea-level rise.

The resident uproar also won changes to STAC’s composition. For its first two years, STAC consisted of five Del Mar residents, an official from the fairgrounds, an official from the California Coastal Commission, a Scripps scientist and an advocate from the Surfrider Foundation. The city council added two more residents to the committee earlier this month — one from the beach colony and one from the bluffs.

After the sweeping changes, the resident rancor had by STAC’s Oct. 26 meeting largely given way to gratitude. But although homeowners bandied about words like “thankful” and “pleasantly shocked,” dire concerns remain, especially over the need for in-depth economic and legal analysis of STAC’s recommendations.

Oceanfront Avenue resident Heather Lindsey was perplexed that the city council could ask STAC to make such profoundly far-reaching recommendations without having a clear sense of their economic impacts.

“This issue is big. It’s bigger than short-term rentals, it’s bigger than the police force,” she said. “This issue, if mismanaged, could cripple the city financially to the point where we could not be a city. It could flood out a third of the city.”

Thorough analyses would push STAC’s timeline far past its December target for finalizing the adaptation plan, so the committee settled on stipulating that further economic and legal analysis must occur before the city moves forward on any of the options.

But as the new draft soothed homeowners, it has upset the Surfrider Foundation, which is closely following Del Mar’s planning. Surfrider members and staff have spoken out at recent STAC meetings about the long-term perils of seawalls and the need to balance property rights with state mandates to ensure coastal access for all Californians.

Del Mar’s new direction throws that balance askew, said Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager for Surfrider’s San Diego chapter. And, eliminating planned retreat will handcuff the city’s ability to deal with the inevitable properties for which sand-replenishment will eventually prove inadequate, she said.

“You’ll be faced with the decision of allowing homes to live in the shadow of a seawall and the beach has been entirely destroyed,” she said. “Those are the type of situations that we want to prevent, and to prevent that takes a long lead time.”

STAC member Kristen Brinner — a Solana Beach resident who co-chairs San Diego Surfrider’s beach preservation committee — was on the subcommittee that rewrote the adaptation plan. Throughout that process, she pushed back that planned retreat needs to remain an option, objections that she raised again on Oct. 26.

“No one wants homes to be removed. But we need to be realistic about what might be coming,” she said. “If we’re talking about the credibility of this report, we can’t say that all options are on the table if we’ve removed an option.”

Several STAC members agreed that the plan ought to explain that planned retreat has been deliberately removed.

STAC hopes to finalize its version of the adaptation plan at its Dec. 7 meeting.

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