Del Mar: Retreat from rising sea levels not an option


Declaring that residents will never be required to abandon their beachfront homes, Del Mar city officials agreed this week to submit a sea-level-rise plan to the California Coastal Commission that omits a state-mandated managed-retreat approach.

Instead of retreat, officials said they will rely on existing seawalls and future sand replenishment programs to protect the hundreds of vulnerable homes on or near the beach and the mouth of the San Dieguito River at the northern end of the small coastal city.

“Managed retreat is not part of this plan, and it’s not something we are going to agree on,” Amanda Lee, the city’s senior planner, told the Del Mar City Council at its meeting Monday, Oct. 1. “The city was required to study managed retreat, which we did, and found it not workable for the city.”

The decision puts the city at odds with the Coastal Commission, the state agency established by voters in 1972 to protect public access to the beach and regulate coastal development. Without an approved sea-level-rise plan, Del Mar could become ineligible for millions of dollars in federal grants for sand replenishment efforts and disaster relief or prevention efforts.

Also, the Coastal Commission could deny permits requested by the city or private residents to build or replace seawalls and other development projects.

It appears to be a gamble Del Mar is willing to take. If they prevail, other cities may follow suit.

The Del Mar City Council agreed Monday, on a 3-1 vote with Councilman Dave Druker opposed and Councilman Terry Sinnott absent, to submit an amendment that includes a sea-level-rise adaptation plan to the Coastal Commission for the city’s Local Coastal Program.

A Local Coastal Program, certified by the state Coastal Commission, allows a city to approve development projects that otherwise would go to the state agency for approval. When Del Mar adopted its program in 1993, the commission did not require cities to include a plan for adapting to rising sea levels, but much about the issue has been learned since then.

Del Mar is more vulnerable to sea-level rise than most other San Diego County communities because it has hundreds of low-lying homes. Residents say managed retreat would never work there because coastal property values are so high, and there’s nowhere else for the owners to go. The city has fewer than 4,400 residents and covers 1.7 square miles entirely west of Interstate 5.

The policy of managed retreat generally means removing coastal protection devices such as seawalls and rock revetments, along with homes, roads and other threatened structures, away from the advancing sea. In some cases, financial assistance could be available to property owners. It’s among a number of policies the commission says coastal communities should consider for adapting to rising sea levels.

Many residents, and their attorneys, have argued vehemently during numerous public meetings over the past three years that the city should not include managed retreat in its sea-level-rise adaptation plan.

Some have said that to even consider the policy would cause the value of their multimillion-dollar homes to plummet.

Druker said the city should take more time to work on its amendment because so many residents are concerned about it. Others said enough time has been spent, and that the city needs to get the adaptation plan into its Local Coastal Program.

A Sept. 28 letter to the city from Coastal Commission program manager Gabriel Buhr commends the city for its work on the proposed plan and its emphasis on “beach nourishment as an effective and appropriate short-term adaptation strategy.”

“We understand the reasons the city staff has chosen not to introduce managed retreat as an adaptation strategy at this time,” Buhr states. “We agree that future assessment of additional adaptation strategies will be warranted when new or amplified coastal hazards are realized.

“In anticipation of these future changes, we do think the city should be establishing thresholds or triggers for when reassessment will occur,” he states.

No date has been set for the Coastal Commission to consider Del Mar’s proposed amendment.

Some council members said the city should submit its amendment soon to get ahead of other cities working on updates.

“We are not the only city that is going to be looking for grant funding to implement these strategies in our community,” said Councilwoman Ellie Haviland.

“We need the added protection of having the plan in the Local Coastal Program,” she said.

Conservative estimates project that the average mean sea level in Del Mar will increase 5 inches by 2030, 12 inches by 2050 and 3.1 feet by 2100.

A study released Sept. 12 by the Coastal Commission takes a more dire view, stating that the rapidly melting glacial ice around the globe creates the possibility of oceans rising as much as 10 feet on the California coast by 2100. Also, most studies show sea-level rise is expected to accelerate as the years progress.

Some Del Mar residents disputed the studies used by the city and the Coastal Commission. New studies by NASA show sea-level rise to be much less, they said. Some also questioned the maps used by the city to outline the projected effects of sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

“We have been told over and over … that we have good science, and we’re learning tonight that we don’t,” said Jerry Jacobs, a Del Mar homeowner for 20 years, urging the council to delay a decision. “We have time, we don’t need to rush this.”

Jon Corn, an attorney for beachfront property owners, urged the city not to update its program, saying there is no legal requirement to do so immediately.

“It will transfer power from the city to the state of California,” Corn said. “Once you do that, you can never get it back.”

The state agency will never accept Del Mar’s adaptation plan until the city includes the policy of managed retreat, Corn said.

Mayor Dwight Worden said that the Coastal Commission’s certification of Del Mar’s amendment and adaptation plan is the best way to lock in what the city wants.

“They cannot put anything into our Local Coastal Program over our objection, Worden said, adding that the state can only suggest changes before certifying the amendment.

He backed up Haviland’s observation that without a plan, the city is less likely to get much-needed federal and state funding.

“There is limited sand out there, and everybody wants it,” Worden said. “If we don’t have our plan in there, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Managed retreat has been less of an issue for other San Diego County cities, where fewer homes are built near sea level. Most coastal homes in Solana Beach, Encinitas and Carlsbad are built atop 60-foot bluffs. Those structures eventually also could be affected as waves erode the bluffs.

Monterey is cited in Coastal Commission documents as a city that has successfully used managed retreat.

That city purchased a number of beachfront structures in an often-flooded area from willing sellers in the 1980s through the early 2000s to open up views of the ocean and create the Monterey Bay Park.

Funding from the county, state, Coastal Conservancy, a regional transportation agency and private donations were used to complete the project.

--Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune