Del Mar beachfront owners ponder city’s sea level-rise adaptation plan

Jerry Jacobs, left, who is president of the Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition’s board, and real estate agent Jason Barry, center, organized a May 25 meeting on coping with sea level rise. Coalition attorney Jon Corn, right, spoke at the meeting.
(Michael J. Williams)

Many Del Mar beachfront property owners and residents applauded the City Council’s decision by a 4-1 vote May 21 to endorse an “adaptation plan” that responds to predictions of the ocean’s impending rise. In favoring the adaptation plan, the council rejected the so-called “managed retreat” option.

Shoreline inhabitants, however, remain uneasy about the future as expressed during a meeting held Friday, May 25, by a grassroots organization called the Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition. Information on the group is available at

“It seems to me we’re all kind of guilty in this,” resident Owen Hahn said. “We’ve gone to sleep at the switch.”

As if to accentuate the stakes raised by the potential for global warming-induced inundation to wreck the coast, the meeting was held in the fashionable shorefront home of diet-regimen entrepreneur Jenny Craig.

There, the approximately 75 attendees had picture-perfect views of the ocean and white-water waves rolling shoreward, a setting that could be threatened in the years to come, whether by nature or government policies.

On the plus side, said Terry Gaasterland, who is chairwoman of the city’s Sea Level Rise Stakeholder-Technical Advisory Committee, the council has rejected the managed retreat option, also known as planned retreat. It would address the rising sea level by such measures as removing homes, roads, sea walls and other obstacles from the water’s inland incursion.

“We now have an adaptation plan that does not have managed retreat at all, which is fantastic, and it’s absolutely everyone here who made that happen,” Gaasterland said.

She added, “In this plan for the beach neighborhoods, the bluff neighborhoods, Powerhouse Park (on the shore) and the wetlands, there are about five to seven specific actions that can be taken.”

The adaptation plan’s strategies include sand replenishment, channel dredging, and flood control management, in contrast to managed retreat’s philosophy of getting structures out of the water’s way.

Impetus for the adoption of such coastal strategies stems in part from state legislation passed in 2015 — Senate Bill 379. It requires cities and counties to update their general plans “to address climate adaptation and resilience strategies” beginning in 2017.

Scientists surmise the ocean’s level could rise as much as 5 feet within the next few decades and from 7 feet to 10 feet by 2100.

The California Coastal Commission, whose mandate is to protect beaches and public access to the state’s shores, has urged jurisdictions to consider the concept of managed retreat as an option.

Many landowners along the coast view managed retreat as a dire threat to their property rights and values.

According to real estate agent Jason Barry, who organized Friday’s forum, not one seaside home in Del Mar sold in 2017, a phenomenon he attributed at least in part to the threat posed by managed retreat.

In choosing the adaptation plan, the council spurned managed retreat as a viable option, in part because of the public cost involved. It could require buying multimillion-dollar beachfront properties to vacate homes and tear them down. Also, many of those properties already are somewhat protected because they sit at higher elevations.

Moreover, managed retreat raises questions about what to do with hundreds more homes near the shore that could be threatened by flooding if structures in front of them were removed, as well the coastal railroad immediately east of the beaches and the state-owned fairgrounds and thoroughbred race track east of the railroad.

Attorney Jon Corn, who is advising the coalition, told those assembled Friday that the managed retreat approach is unworkable for Del Mar.

“The idea of managed retreat is a total fallacy,” he said. “If you really think it through, you realize that it will never work. ... Managed retreat would be a disaster.”

The dilemma facing city leaders is what to do with the adaptation plan now that it’s been accepted. The council is scheduled to address the issue at its meeting July 16.

As the adaptation plan moved through the city’s bureaucracy, its administrators processed the proposal as an amendment to Del Mar’s Local Coastal Plan. Shoreline cities are required by state law to have such plans, which must be certified by the Coastal Commission.

However, incorporating the adaptation policy into the Local Coastal Plan could trigger Coastal Commission intervention and the possibility that it might require the dreaded managed retreat option.

Another possibility is to incorporate the adaptation document into the city’s general plan, in accordance with SB 379.

Whether the later action would satisfy the Coastal Commission remains to be seen.

Corn contends the city does not need the commission’s blessing on the adaptation plan, and other coalition members worry about the state body’s involvement.

“The initial task is to make sure this plan never moves to the Coastal Commission,” said coalition board director and former state Legislator Mark Wyland.

As part of the coalition’s mission in arranging the meeting, board President Jerry Jacobs pitched the group’s value in supporting the adaptation plan in the face of challenges to it, whether it be by city or state officials. He urged those present to help keep the grassroots organization financially viable through donations.

“Nobody on the beach preservation coalition is paid,” he said. “They’re all doing this because they love Del Mar.”

Ultimately, the coalition seeks to develop enough clout to promote City Council candidates favorable to its positions.

“We’ve got to be able to prove that we can force change,” Jacobs said.

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