Solana Beach gets OK to study seawall impact fees for another year

The California Coastal Commission has agreed to give Solana Beach a 12-month extension to respond to the state agency’s proposal for how much the city should charge blufftop homeowners for permits to build and upgrade seawalls along beaches below their homes.

The Commission’s unanimous approval on Dec. 13 sets the table for planners, attorneys and coastal engineers to hash out the long-contested science that underpins the state’s Public Recreation Impact Fee. The fee is meant as compensation for recreational opportunities lost to seawalls, which accelerate beach erosion and cover a portion of the sand. The fee is determined in part as a percentage of the annual wages of Solana Beach’s beach visitors and the size of the available beach.

Not setting the fee has prevented Solana Beach from certifying its Local Coastal Program, which would allow the city to make planning and development decisions on its own without seeking approval from the Coastal Commission. Without a certified LCP, property owners have to get Coastal Commission approval — rather than city staff — for a wide array of relatively minor improvements and additions.

Solana Beach started its study to determine the fees more than a decade ago. In the interim, the city has charged $1,000 per linear foot for seawall permits —revenues that are set aside for sand replenishment, stairways, parking lots and other projects that make the beach more usable.

City staff and a team of economists, planners and scientists spent two years collecting data on beachgoers and released the fee study in 2010 for public comment. It was revised three times over the ensuing six years, largely from input gathered over seven public hearings. The city’s most recent revision came in April 2016, to which the Coastal Commission responded a year later with 16 suggested modifications. Solana Beach supported all but the first two modifications, which are based on the wages of people who visit the city’s beaches and the size of the beach itself.

The Coastal Commission wants the fee based on 67 percent of wages while the city’s proposal is based on 33 percent of wages. At 33 percent, the fee last year would have been $385 per foot of seawall, increasing to $610 by 2026. At 67 percent, the fee would have been $754 last year increasing to $1,192 by 2026.

At 33 percent, Solana Beach would charge the second-lowest fee in the state, while 67 percent would still be below most coastal cities.

The other point of contention is that neither party agree on how much beach Solana Beach has. The city says its available public beach is 18.8 acres, based on LiDAR data and on-site surveys conducted from April 2008 through December 2009. The Coastal Commission, meanwhile, points to LiDAR data from 1998-2015 that say Solana Beach has 15.2 acres of beach.

After the Coastal Commission issued its suggested modifications in May, city officials complained that the suggestions were introduced at the 11th hour, in a letter less than two weeks before the Coastal Commission’s May hearing. At that hearing, the Coastal Commission gave Solana Beach six months to respond.

Days from that deadline, the city council on Nov. 1 balked on a decision in order to ask for the extension. City officials maintain that the fee, which is at play in a handful of lawsuits in state court, can be reached in compromise.

Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter, took issue with the city’s characterization that it was caught unaware. A June 2015 letter expressed concerns that were “very similar” to the April 2016 modifications, she said.

Given that Solana Beach’s LCP was proposed in March 2012 and the city was given 18 months to finalize it, the seawall fee needs to be resolved with all due haste.

“It’s our intent to keep this moving forward,” she said. “We’ve been promised these fees since as early as 2007.”

When the city council declined on Nov. 1 to rule on the Coastal Commission’s modifications, the council also decided to separate the bluffs into its own planning area so that the remainder of the city can proceed toward a certified LCP, unencumbered by the seawall fee dispute.

Chunn-Heer urged the commission to approve the time extension, but warned that Solana Beach’s moves imply the city is leaning away from the state’s recommendation.

“By bifurcating, it seems that the city is trying to keep the fee as low as possible,” she told the Coastal Commission on Dec. 13. “We feel that if that’s the case, they should definitely accept the changes that you offered in May.”

Several communities in the San Diego region have divided their planning areas into separate segments, albeit for other reasons. Staff-level discussions on the bifurcation are already underway between the city and Coastal Commission, and the proposal could reach the Coastal Commission’s board of directors by the end of this year.