Del Mar council approves plan for dealing with sea level rise

Storm surge floods Del Mar’s North Beach in 2014.
(Courtesy of The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Del Mar took a step toward addressing the potential threat of sea level rise to coastal homes and public infrastructure in the coming decades, as the City Council approved an adaptation plan some three years in the making.

The plan, paid for with two grants from the state, was approved on a 4-1 vote with Councilman Terry Sinnott opposed, following more than two hours of testimony and discussion at the council meeting on Monday, May 21.

The sticking point Monday - and at a prior meeting in April when the draft adaptation plan was discussed - was the issue of "planned retreat," a strategy for dealing with sea level rise that calls for removing homes, sea walls and other structures in the face of a rising ocean.

In the end, the city rejected planned retreat in favor of such methods as beach nourishment, river channel dredging, river levees and sand replenishment. The council went so far as to strike a sentence from the plan that said planned retreat could be studied in the future if necessary.

The final plan generally pleased residents of low-lying beach areas, called the Del Mar beach colony, who fear that property values could plummet if the adaption plan even mentioned planned retreat. Residents also are concerned that due to the topography of their neighborhood, removal of seafront homes and seawalls could make their properties more vulnerable to flooding.

Mayor Dwight Worden, who supported the final plan and helped refine its language before Monday's meeting with Councilman Dave Druker, said he, too, was pleased with the final product.

Worden said that both the Surfrider Foundation, which wanted the plan to protect wide beaches and public access, and homeowners should be supportive because wide beaches also protect coastal homes from flooding and inundation as sea levels rise.

"That's the sweet spot our plan focuses on," Worden said.

The next decision for the council is what to do with the plan now that it has been completed. One option is to incorporate it into the city's local coastal program, which would require approval of the California Coastal Commission. Another option, one favored by most of the roughly 30 public speakers at Monday's meeting, is to make it a part of Del Mar's voter-approved community plan.

Residents said they feared that if the plan goes to the Coastal Commission, that body might try to reinstate planned retreat as a strategy for Del Mar to deal with sea level rise. In an April 16 letter, a commission staff member urged the council to "more clearly acknowledge the potential need for planned retreat, and to direct the city to study the issue and begin planning for this potential need."

The Coastal Commission letter said California may see a rise in ocean levels by 5 feet in the coming decades, sooner than expected, and the rise could reach 7 to 10 feet by 2100.

City staff and some council members said Monday that by adding the adaptation plan to the city's local coastal program, the Coastal Commission would be bound to honor the city's rejection of planned retreat when considering future applications for seawalls and other development.

"It is the best way to protect your interest, your home and your (sea)wall," Worden said to the audience.

But others, including attorney Jon Corn, who represents a group called the Beach Preservation Commission, which is opposed to planned retreat, contend that if the city submits its adaptation plan to the Coastal Commission, the panel could seek to modify the plan in a way that could open the door to planned retreat in the future.

"They usually pick on the small coastal towns. They know they can outlast you, They'll wear you down. We don't want to take that risk, this is too important," Corn said.

"I like to think of the Coastal Commission as the vampire at the door. if you invite him in, he's going to bite you," Corn said.

Worden responded later, "That vampire is already in your house eating at the dinner table. We will use this plan to push the vampire out of your house."

In the adaptation plan, the city listed eight reasons why planned retreat is not feasible for Del Mar. Among the reasons are that the high property values in Del Mar makes it impractical for the city to acquire private property; there is little available land where residents could be relocated; and that the existing seawalls protect lower-lying public and private property from ocean flooding.

The council will next take up the issue on July 16, when it could decide what to do with its adaptation plan.

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