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Coastal Commission and city clash over managed retreat

DEL MAR — The California Coastal Commission’s consideration of Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program amendment has been delayed, with Del Mar emphasizing its opposition to managed retreat.

Del Mar is one of the first cities to try to address the realities of sea-level rise through its Local Coastal Program (LCP), a planning document that regulates development in the coastal zone.

The city spent years drafting an Adaptation Plan, with both short-, mid- and long-term strategies for dealing with the coastal repercussions of climate change. In October 2018, the city voted to  submit the plan as an amendment to Del Mar’s LCP — which requires approval by the Coastal Commission.

The commission was scheduled to consider the amendment on Oct. 16, with staff recommending the body deny Del Mar’s amendment.

Their staff report concluded that Del Mar’s amendment “does not include the level of detail necessary to address the future impacts of (sea-level rise) — and future extreme events … ”

However, the commission’s executive director and Del Mar staff and officials have agreed that the matter requires further discussion, so it was postponed. According to the city’s Principal Planner Amanda Lee, the item will likely be considered again in February of 2020 at the commission’s next local hearing, a month before the city’s amendment application expires in March.

“We’ll be able to sit down together and talk about the perspectives of the two agencies, and see if we can reach common ground,” said Lee.

The discussion really comes down to managed retreat — an adaptation solution preferred by the Coastal Commission that would involve the city acquiring coastal land and allowing the shoreline to naturally migrate east.

Del Mar residents — particularly those who live in the city’s sea-level beach colony — have been ardent in their opposition to this option, with the city seeing it as unfeasible due to the cost of land in the area. The city passed a commitment resolution in 2018 to maintain its rejection of managed retreat.

Instead, volunteers and city staff collaborated for years to craft a number of “Adaptation Plan” strategies to help the city deal with sea-level rise, for example, by bringing more sand to the city’s beaches.

But it appears that the Coastal Commission is looking for a higher level of commitment, and some are concerned the agency’s suggestions are a “back door” directive to managed retreat.

Commission staff suggested a number of modifications, such as that the city alter its zoning in the beach colony and along the bluff, expanding zones that are labelled as prone to sea-level rise impacts. Such changes alert potential buyers that such properties are “located in an area potentially subject to hazards associated with sea-level rise.”

This incited some confusion, as the bluff-top properties in the proposed zone are located east of the city’s railroad tracks and not subject to direct wave action. City staff reported that the bluff area will likely not be prone to vulnerabilities until the late 21st century, which does not take into account ongoing bluff stabilization efforts.

The Coastal Commission also recommended “trigger points,” as a way to bind cities to longer-term strategies, through continued LCP amendments. Such “triggers” would include a certain minimum bluff edge width or beach width, for example, which would “trigger” a more serious level of adaptation.

Residents worry that normal, seasonal variations in the beach width would prompt “an endless cycle of new LCPAs,” in the words of active resident John Imperato, and more quickly lead to a managed retreat option.

At an Oct. 7 City Council meeting, community members spoke out against the Coastal Commission staff recommendation, many wearing stickers saying, “keep your promise,” or with the term “trigger points” crossed out in red.

Staff and council reiterated the city’s stance on managed retreat, with the council opting to stand its ground.

“They’re asking us now to plan for an extreme event, and it’s unnecessary,” said Lee at the meeting.

In an email to The Coast News, Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland said she sees future discussions with the Coastal Commission addressing areas such as Del Mar’s ongoing efforts to deal with bluff erosion and sea-level rise, as well as the link between the city’s bluff vulnerabilities and train track-related stabilization efforts.

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