‘Retreat’ stymies Del Mar’s vote on sea-level rise plan

The Del Mar City Council has postponed by a month its landmark vote on the city’s plan for adapting to sea-level rise, deciding after a three-hour hearing on April 16 to form a special panel to work out the exact wording needed to give “managed retreat” enough weight to satisfy the California Coastal Commission, but without instituting the strategy outright.

Managed retreat — also called planned retreat, in which property and infrastructure are removed to make way for receding beaches — has over the past nine months become the bane of Del Mar’s “beach colony,” where residents fear its mere mention will decimate property values in the hyper-luxurious enclave.

Since last summer, the city’s Sea-Level Rise Stakeholder-Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) has slogged through expert testimony, geotechnical studies and climate change data before arriving in January at a draft Adaptation Plan that made pains to exclude managed retreat as an option for private property. The city planning commission followed suit in February.

Less than a week before the plan’s April 16 hearing, city officials changed key passages in response to objections from the Coastal Commission. Planners at the state agency have warned for months that Del Mar’s disregard for managed retreat is unlikely to find favor when the Adaptation Plan is amended into Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program, which controls a wide range of development, including seawalls.

While the Adaptation Plan includes a detailed explanation of why retreat is not feasible for North Beach, residents were nonetheless alarmed to see changes they feel weaken the city’s position. Nearly all of the three dozen residents who testified on April 16 demanded that the Adaptation Plan be purged of managed retreat for private property, and laid out one pitfall after another to make that case: the impact on the real estate market and property taxes, the decades of contentious litigation, and, most of all, the beach colony’s bowl-like topography, which would make its 600 homes even more susceptible to flooding if seawalls and beachfront homes were removed.

“Retreat will not change climate change, but retreat will change Del Mar,” said STAC chairwoman Terry Gaasterland.

Mayor Dwight Worden, Deputy Mayor Dave Druker and Senior Planner Amanda Lee will confer with Gaasterland, attorney John Corn — who represents a group of homeowners called the Beach Preservation Coalition — and a handful of other STAC members to hammer out the nuanced wording in time for the council’s May 21 meeting.

While the exact phrasing remains to be seen, all five councilmembers made clear on April 16 that retreat should not be included in the city’s “toolbox” of adaptation strategies. Rather, retreat will be considered for possible study only when other options prove fruitless.

“If and when everything else fails, we will then study it,” Worden said. “We’re not going to plan for it now, we’re not going to figure out how to do it now.”

Instead of retreat, the Adaptation Plan prioritizes sand replenishment and sand retention, dredging of the San Dieguito River and a possible levee along its banks. City officials believe sand management strategies will be viable up to 3 feet of sea-level rise, which moderate projections place at around 50 years from now.

“This is a plan that will work,” Worden said.

But in a letter sent hours before the April 16 hearing, Coastal staff repeated their view that Del Mar’s sand-first strategy cannot be sustained over the long term, and warned that a recent study suggests sea-level rise may come much sooner than expected. Because planning for managed retreat could take several decades, Coastal staff want Del Mar to get the opening stages underway.

“As currently structured, the Adaptation Plan may leave future City officials in the unenviable position of implementing planned retreat without adequate preparation,” Coastal Program Manager Gabe Buhr wrote in the letter.

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