Solana Beach approves seawall study

Seawalls protecting coastal bluffs from erosion on the south end of Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach.
Seawalls protecting coastal bluffs from erosion on the south end of Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach.
( / Eduardo Contreras)

Solana Beach is sending the California Coastal Commission a study that determined how much property owners should compensate the public for beach that is lost when seawalls are constructed to protect private property atop eroding bluffs.

In a 3-1 vote, the City Council on April 13 adopted the draft public recreation impact fee study and related local coastal program land use plan amendment.

“I really appreciate the engagement from everybody, the comments that people have made,” said Mayor David Zito, although admitting that the fee schedule is “not perfect.”

“We’re trying — maybe not achieving a perfect balance — but at least it’s a starting point,” he said.

For decades, seawalls have caused conflict because they prevent bluffs from eroding and replenishing beaches. The California Coastal Act of 1976 aims to preserve beach access and protect the shoreline.

Coastal property owners petition the city to build seawalls to protect their homes. Conversely, the Coastal Commission and environmental groups such as the Surfrider Foundation argue that homeowners must be held accountable for how the structures contribute to the narrowing of the beaches.

“What we should be doing going forward is coming to a fair and just result for the interests of the Solana Beach residents,” said Vincent Axelson of Axelson & Corn Attorneys at Law. He represents coastal property owners in Solana Beach. “I know sometimes the interests of the Coastal Commission and the interests of the residents of Solana Beach can conflict.”

“There’s no loss for them because they’ve got their seawall,” said Solana Beach resident Jim Jaffee, who serves as co-chair of the Beach Preservation Committee for the San Diego County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “The only loss is the loss of the beach, which we know is an impact. ... That’s the reason why we’re assessing these fees, because we’re going to lose the beach when you build that seawall.”

Solana Beach resident Gordon Hanson, an economics professor at UC San Diego, said the council, city staff and consultants listened to all sides.

“This is a process that you’ve conducted with a great deal of rigor,” he said. “You’ve listened to experts, you’ve incorporated comments, you’ve conducted a study, which, I think, if you were to put in front of environmental researchers, it’s something that they would find very credible and following best practice.”

Solana Beach released a draft study in 2010, prior to adopting its land use plan. The study was never finalized due to lack of funding.

With no permanent fee in place, the city has been collecting $1,000 per linear foot of seawall as a deposit toward the public recreation impact fee since 2007.

In 2014, the city received a $120,000 grant from the Coastal Commission to complete the study. According to the terms of the grant, all work must be completed and submitted to the Coastal Commission by the end of April.

The draft fee study was originally released Nov. 18, 2015 through Jan. 22, 2016. Following the 66-day public review period, six comment letters and several revisions, a revised study was released Feb. 25 through April 7. The city received three additional comment letters from the Coastal Commission, Axelson & Corn and the Surfrider Foundation.

The study initially set the public recreation impact fee at $870 per linear square foot for seawalls permitted this year. Now, the fee will be determined on a project-specific basis and will include both a linear foot and a square foot component associated with the design and location of the proposed bluff retention device.

The new fee ranges from $431 to $939 per linear foot for devices permitted this year, increasing to $686 to $1,309 per linear foot for a typical 2-foot thick seawall in 2026.

According to City Manager Gregory Wade, the actual fee will be dependent upon project-specific conditions including the size and location of the bluff retention device, the amount of beach area that would otherwise be “immediately available” for recreation purposes, and other site-specific factors.

With Deputy Mayor Peter Zahn absent, Councilwoman Ginger Marshall cast the sole dissenting vote.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t here at the nexus of the fee study,” Marshall said. “I’m just looking at this as a new, incoming city councilmember that’s been here a little over a year, and I feel sorry for the homeowners. They’re paying land lease fees, they’re paying sand mitigation fees, and now, this fee. It doesn’t rub well with me, and I’m not really supportive of charging them a third fee.”

The agency has 90 days to review the report, although Wade said it could take longer. If the Coastal Commission sends the plan back to the council with suggested modifications, council members have 180 days to accept it and move forward with the certification process.