Rising oceans stir rising discord in Del Mar


As Del Mar’s shoreline washes away one wave and winter storm at a time, the city’s task force on sea-level rise is struggling to choose from responses that offer partial and impermanent remedy while each wreaking a havoc of their own.

Sea walls and other man-made fortifications protect homes in the short term but exacerbate beach erosion in the long term. Artificial reefs dampen wave action, but to the detriment of surfing. Lifting homes onto stilts buys time but nothing else. Replenishing a beach’s sand carries a hefty cost, a fleeting payoff and is notoriously finicky — slight miscalculations in grain size can render a decade-long project null within a few years.

That’s the herculean task ahead as members of the Sea-Level Rise Stakeholder-Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) culminate their two-year, state-funded endeavor to prepare Del Mar for the beach erosion and coastal flooding predicted to come with climate change.

But in the city’s beach colony, the endeavor poses a threat far more imminent than the 20- and 50-year forecasts of breached sea walls and inundated streets. For owners in the uber-lavish enclave, the most immediate threat just might be the plan itself.

Per state mandate, the committee is trying to asses exactly what and where the city’s vulnerabilities are, identify what corrective measures can be taken, gauge the trade-offs in those measures, and determine what the triggers should be for taking those actions.

The committee’s plan lays out five courses of action, starting with sand replenishment and changing redevelopment regulations to allow homes to be raised. The list closes with the possibility of removing property.

“In the long-term with higher amounts and rates of sea-level rise, removing structures will likely be required to meet the guiding adaptation principles of maintaining a relatively low flood damage risk and a walkable beach,” the draft reads.

That prospect filled STAC’s Aug. 24 meeting with irate homeowners from the beach colony, their tempers already inflamed by the fact that nearly no one in the neighborhood had received notice of the meeting.

STAC chairwoman Terry Gaasterland tried to assure them of the committee’s priorities.

“The beach is important to Del Mar. But our neighbors, all of us, are important to Del Mar,” she said. “Protecting property is first and foremost. Protecting the beach is part of protecting property. It’s a real struggle.”

That did little to soothe the rancor, and the meeting repeatedly turned chaotic as the homeowners tried to explain that the mere mention of home removal will devastate the real estate market in the beach colony, which combines to more than $1 billion in assessed property value.

“What everybody is trying to tell you is that people aren’t going to buy houses down there,” said beach colony resident Larry Wolfe. “You’re going to cut the value of everybody’s house by saying ‘If we hit a certain trigger we’re going to take your house away.’ That’s what every real estate person we’ve showed this to is saying, and that’s what everybody sitting here has been telling you all night long. Is there not a way that you can just not talk about taking people’s property away from them? Can you start with the beginning of your plan and then if it hits a certain point then we say, ‘OK we’ll come up with another plan,’ instead of putting it in there now and killing everyone’s real estate value? That’s what everyone’s been saying to you all night long. Jiminy Christmas, how many times do we have to say it?”

Amanda Lee, a senior planner with the city, tried to explain that removing structures is the last resort. When the uproar didn’t abate, she went even further.

“We’re not going to write that in,” she said. “You’re looking at an initial draft and we’ll not put anything forward that has any type of regulatory taking. We’re trying to be sensitive to your concerns. We’re going to be careful with the language. This is very early in the process and we understand.”

As the meeting wore on, a semblance of consensus emerged over sand replenishment being Del Mar’s best option.

Encinitas and Solana Beach are awaiting a $174 million federal project that’s been in the works for 20 years. The first deposits are expected within the next year or two. Prevailing currents will bring much of that sand to Del Mar beaches after a few years.

The draft adaptation plan has suggested 1 foot of sea-level rise as the trigger to begin sand replenishment. Several residents and committee members said the city can’t afford to wait that long.

“We probably needed to start replenishing the beach last year. That’s something we can start thinking about tangibly, as a community, now,” Gaasterland said. “So maybe the trigger needs to be zero feet of rise. That’s starting to be what I’m hearing.”

But with sand — and funding — in short supply, strengthening and raising the sea walls that already line most of Del Mar’s beach may be the only option immediately at hand — a reality that the Surfrider Foundation worries is becoming a de facto policy statewide.

Mandy Sackett, part of a Surfrider contingent that attended the Aug. 24 meeting, contrasted the beach colony’s concerns with the interests of millions of Californians who by law have the same rights to the beach.

“Hard armoring is killing our beaches,” she said. “When we meet rising seas with sea walls and revetments, we lose our beaches. That fact is clear. Sea walls protect property, not beaches or ecosystems.”

But whereas Surfrider said 30 to 70 percent of sand in a typical beach comes from bluff erosion, STAC member Mark Handzel pointed to a study that found that in Del Mar, bluff erosion contributes about 1 percent of the beach’s sand.

As will be detailed in STAC’s upcoming report on sedimentation, Del Mar’s sand deficit traces back to the damming of Lake Hodges, Handzel said. But Del Mar isn’t likely to effect change at Lake Hodges because the dam is so vital to residents in Rancho Santa Fe, he said.

“Sea-level rise is a result of what everyone’s done. Everyone has contributed to the carbon issue and so everyone has to contribute to the solution,” he said. “So how do we make compromises that go across everyone? It can’t be just the property owners. It can’t be just the beach users. It can’t be just the surf people. Everyone has to contribute to the final solution.”

Committee members hope to put the finishing touches on their draft by STAC’s Sept. 21 meeting. From there the adaptation plan will go to the city planning commission and city council before eventually being amended into Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program, which is overseen by the California Coastal Commission.

Read about STAC’s work, including its draft adaptation plan, at www.delmar.ca.us/sealevelrise.