A proposed staircase down to Beacon's Beach must be redesigned to make it look less like a "Las Vegas-style skywalk" or "freeway overpass" and more like something that fits with Leucadia's funky vibe, Encinitas Planning Commissioners decided Thursday, July 19.
The decision -- a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Al Apuzzo absent -- came after hours of public testimony dominated by project opponents. Some 30 people spoke to the commission. Many of them stayed to hear the vote, then jumped to their feet to give the commissioners a standing ovation afterward.
"The whole process is going to take longer, but we're going to come up with something that's right for Beacon's -- I just know it," Commissioner Kevin Doyle, who lives near the beach access point, said as the cheering crowd quieted.
Located in the 900 block of Neptune Avenue, Beacon's Beach is accessed via a switchback, dirt trail down a coastal bluff that's prone to landslide activity. The rustic trail, which the city has posted with "Danger: Enter at Your Own Risk" signs, is beloved by people who live nearby.
On July 19, trail supporters said the trail is easier for the elderly and young children to use than a gigantic staircase down the bluff, better connects beach visitors to the surrounding environment and is truly the center of community life.
"I would hate to see the Beacon's Beach trail go," Leucadia resident Jessica McDermott said, her voice breaking with emotion as she described how her four children regularly use the trail. "I think it's like the most beautiful thing in the world ... There's no other place like it on earth."
City planning employees and city-hired consultants said the trail may look stable, but landslide activity has occurred there in the past; that's why this small section of coastline doesn't have homes right on the bluff. And, they said, more slides are very likely in the years to come.
"There is no warning when these landslides, or when these bluff failures, are going to happen .... Like I said, the movement is not just imminent, it's not predictable -- it could just happen," warned geotechnical consultant James Knowlton, who has done coastal bluff research in the Encinitas area for more than 35 years.
After a decade of exploring various options to replace or reconstruct the trail and having them rejected by state coastal regulators, the city recently settled on a staircase design that appears to "float" above the landscape because it rests on big concrete pillars. The project meets state requirements because it doesn't call for sea walls or "armoring" the bluff, and it allows coastal erosion activity to continue naturally, city associate civil engineer Stephanie Kellar said.
Representatives for both the California Coastal Commission and State Parks system, as well as the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, have expressed support for the plan, she added. On July 19, the Planning Commission was asked to approve a design review permit for the proposed staircase and the accompanying reconfiguration of the tiny parking lot, which would eliminate 11 of the 26 spaces.
Trail proponents said the project's estimated $3.5 million price tag could be better spent on many decades of future beach trail maintenance work as well as other city projects, and argued that the staircase proposal should be dropped. But several coastal beach sand advocates, including Surfrider Foundation Policy Manager Julia Chunn-Heer, said the staircase was the city's best shot at preserving beach access without causing harm to coastal environmental conditions.
Chunn-Heer, an Encinitas resident, said Surfrider didn't have an opinion about whether the staircase ought to be made of wood or concrete, and said she would support the use of the trail in the short term, but the best long-term solution was the staircase.
Planning Commissioners took the middle ground, saying that they believed a staircase was eventually going to be necessary, but there was plenty of time for a redesign.
"I don't think the bluff is going to fail this year," Doyle said, adding that he's not a betting man, but "if I was in Vegas, I'd take those odds in a flash."
Commissioners decided to direct city employees and consultants to host a series of community meetings to craft a compromise design that would better blend in with the hillside. They also said they would like to see a full-scale environmental assessment of the project, or at least an updating of an environmental report done years ago.
"This really is the focal point of Leucadia -- it's kind of iconic," Commission Chairman Glenn O'Grady said of the trail access route.
--Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune