Task force hands off its plan for adapting Del Mar to rising seas

After 30 months of wide-ranging, painstaking and increasingly contentious work, Del Mar’s task force on sea-level rise has polished off its adaptation plan that will set the groundwork for how the city responds to the escalating threat of floods and coastal erosion predicted in the decades ahead.

Del Mar’s Sea-Level Rise Stakeholder-Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) on Jan. 25 signed off on the 70-page package of strategies and priorities after more than a dozen separate votes on the final wording of controversial passages—primarily relating to its decision to exclude policies of “managed retreat” as an option. It marks a crucial milestone in the committee’s exhaustive endeavor, making Del Mar only the second city in San Diego County—after Imperial Beach—to craft a sea-level rise adaptation plan per state legislation passed three years ago. The adaptation plan can be found at www.delmar.ca.us/sealevelrise.

While the Jan. 25 meeting put to rest thorny deliberations over “managed retreat,” a new question arose as to whether the committee has run afoul of state laws on financial conflict of interest.

Over STAC’s first two years, its meetings were sparsely attended and generated little controversy. But as the adaptation plan started taking shape last summer to include the possibility that homes may eventually need to be removed from endangered areas, residents of Del Mar’s “beach colony” rallied in despondent protest. Despite repeated assurances that managed retreat was being included only as a final, far-off resort, homeowners countered that its mere suggestion would upend the 400-home neighborhood, which exceeds more than $1 billion in assessed property value.

The sudden furor compelled STAC to reverse course, and drafts of the plan from October onward sought to purge all mention of private-property removal. The question then became whether to include the committee’s debate as part of the adaptation plan. Lengthy deliberation at last week’s meeting settled on including the sentence, “It is too early in the process to include managed retreat as an adaptation option in Del Mar,” while the committee’s struggles with managed retreat will be detailed in a separate, forthcoming memo.

Frustration reigned as committee members quarreled over managed retreat and groused over the futility of having so carefully crafted a document that will be revised—extensively, in all likelihood—in the months and years ahead. Adding to the pique, STAC’s representative from the Surfrider Foundation questioned whether the committee has run afoul of state law due to an inherent conflict of interest of homeowners who benefit financially from eliminating managed retreat as an option. While most committee members bristled at the last-minute suggestion, Mayor Dwight Worden acknowledged that the city attorney will need to weigh in.

“I don’t think that you can answer it here today,” Worden said.

STAC’s work does not end with its work on the adaptation plan. The committee is scheduled to meet once a month through June, with major topics including a long-awaited report on the mechanics of how sand circulates from the San Dieguito River to the Pacific Ocean and along coastal currents—an essential part of formulating effective strategies that will sustain Del Mar’s beaches. STAC’s environmental consultant gave a preliminary presentation Jan. 25, with a more thorough report expected at the committee’s Feb. 22 meeting.

Another issue left unresolved was the definition of a “walkable beach.” From its outset, one of STAC’s key tenets has been to maintain a walkable beach for as much of the year as possible. But it was only in December that the committee first broached what “walkable” actually means. Two dozen residents weighed in prior to last week’s meeting, but the committee members decided to delay that discussion on the grounds that they so far lack a scientific basis to define it.

STAC was rushing to complete its work in time for a one-time hearing with the city’s planning commission on Feb. 13.

“So it took us two-and-a-half years to get here and they’re going to have one meeting?” said STAC member Mark Handzel. “I find that absolutely unbelievable. To go through all the nuances of all the things we just went through, and all the conflict, and they’re going to have one meeting seems completely unreasonable. But whatever.”

Once the planning commission has its say, the adaptation plan is expected to go under city council scrutiny in March. From there the California Coastal Commission will issue a final ruling on whether the adaptation plan can be amended into Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program, the document that dictates development in nearly every part of the city.

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