The Solana Beach City Council has unanimously approved a seawall fee after a decade of study and discussion.
Adhering to a 12-month delay granted by the California Coastal Commission in January, the council on Nov. 13 agreed to the state agency's wage rate of 67 percent, based on the seawall's location, the erosion rate of the bluffs and the value of a day at the beach.
Alternatively, the city had proposed 33 percent, but council members found it unlikely that the state agency would lower its percentage. A delay in a decision might result in an even higher percentage, they argued.
"Our greater risk of, again trying to do the right thing for Solana Beach residents, is at the end of the day, this fee and what we end up doing here is going to be set by the Coastal Commission," Mayor David Zito said. "We can do what we want. We can kick and cry and yell if we want to, but they are going to take the data that they see in front of them, and that's what they use to make their decisions with really good arguments."
The seawall fee, which has been in development since 2007, underpins the state's Public Recreation Impact Fee. That fee is meant as compensation for recreational opportunities lost to seawalls, which accelerate erosion and cover a portion of the sand. Not setting the fee has prevented Solana Beach from certifying its Local Coastal Program (LCP), which would allow the city to make planning and development decisions on its own without seeking approval from the Coastal Commission. Without a certified LCP, property owners have to get Coastal Commission approval — rather than city staff — for a wide array of relatively minor improvements and additions. The plan hasn't been updated since 2014.
In the interim, the city has been charging $1,000 per linear foot for seawall permits — revenues that are set aside for sand replenishment, stairways, parking lots and other projects that make the beach more usable.
One other point of contention is that neither the state or the city agree on how much beach Solana Beach has. The city says its available public beach is 18.8 acres, based on LiDAR data and on-site surveys conducted from April 2008 through December 2009. The Coastal Commission, meanwhile, points to LiDAR data from 1998 to 2017 that says Solana Beach has 15.2 acres of beach.
As part of its motion Nov. 13, the council agreed to study new LiDAR survey data in the fee's beach area calculations.
Several bluff-top homeowners attended the meeting to urge the council to reject the commission's proposed fee rate, which could create financial hardships for owners living on a fixed income.
Chandra Slaven, a certified planner with the Cardiff-based Jon Corn Law Firm, said she believed the Coastal Commission was "attempting to bully the city" into adopting an "excessive, arbitrary and capricious" public recreational fee. Slaven — who spoke on behalf of conservancy groups and condominium owners along the bluffs — believed the proposal was a continuation of the state agency's efforts to push its "agenda" of managed retreat, which removes coastal protection devices such as seawalls and rock revetments, along with homes, roads and other threatened structures, away from the advancing sea.
Ari Spangler, an attorney with the Jon Corn Law Firm, later added, "If the Coastal Commission had its way, everyone that lives on the bluff would just abandon their homes.”
One resident urged the council to follow Del Mar's example of rejecting managed retreat altogether, as that body did in October when discussing its sea-level-rise plan.
Another resident, Tom Ryan, who has lived in Seascape Shores since the early 1990s, said he and his neighbors have built seawalls as a "public service" for beachgoers and residents to protect them from falling bluffs.
But Mayor David Zito later commented that lifeguards warn anyone on the beaches near a bluff or seawall to stay away from those structures.
Those in support of the fees said they are an acceptable way of charging the homeowners rent for usage of the beach.
"People are using public property for private purposes, and they have no right to do that," said Jim Jaffee, a 20-year resident and co-chair of the local Surfrider Foundation.
He said seawalls mean lost beach area, and the fees generated from seawalls could be used to improve other areas on the coast. He added that hundreds of residents have signed a petition encouraging the council to adopt a fee.
Ryan Bone, an economist, considered 67 percent as conservative and does not consider costs of driving to the beach or staying overnight in the area.
Zito said he supported adopting the Coastal Commission's fee "as painful as it is."
"This is not where I want to be," he said. "I don't like having to do this. A lot of people have said we need to be moving forward and trying to get to an end result."
He added that the city has other "potential battles ahead."
"At least we have something certain and something we can fight for," he said.
-- Sebastian Montes contributed to this report.