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Planning Commission kills Beacon’s Beach staircase

ENCINITAS — The proposed staircase at Beacon’s Beach is dead, for now, after a divided Encinitas Planning Commission voted Dec. 6 to deny the project.

The Planning Commission, through its 3-2 vote, ruled that the city’s proposal for a wooden staircase was too similar to the earlier concrete version, which locals had ridiculed as a “Las Vegas Skyway.”

Unless it is appealed, the ruling prohibits the city from reapplying for the project for a year from the date of the original filing, or next July.

“I have an issue with this being back here, the ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario,” Commissioner Bruce Ehlers said, referring to a presentation given by a project opponent that likened the scenario to the 1990s film. “I hope we would guard our decision making process and say no.”

“It doesn’t look that different to me, I’m in the same camp as Bruce,” Commissioner Al Apuzzo said.

Kevin Doyle joined Ehlers and Apuzzo in voting to deny the project, while Commission Chairman Glenn O’Grady and Commissioner Jody Hubbard, who was recently elected to the City Council, opposed the motion.

Encinitas has been grappling for nearly two decades with how to fix the unstable coastal bluff that threatens the switchback staircase and the parking lot atop the coastal bluff at the beach.

The city originally pursued a seawall at the beach during the 2000s, but the state withdrew the grant in 2009, citing its policy against sea walls.

After additional initial attempts failed to pass muster with state agencies, city staff in 2017 emerged with a plan to relocate the parking lot further landward and build a new staircase to replace the iconic switchback staircase with one similar to ones at Grandview and Swami’s beaches.

The City Council approved as part of its 2018-19 budget $4.15 million for the project — $750,000 for engineering and the balance for construction. City officials hope to break ground on the project by October.

But a groundswell of opposition emerged in June, when the city unveiled the preliminary designs for the staircase, which featured concrete foundations and stairs, which residents felt would destroy the character and charm of the beach.

The commission’s vote comes after months of polarized debate since the unveiling of the plans over whether the city should build the staircase.

The Planning Commission voted to reject the plans for a concrete staircase in September, asking the city to work with residents to come up with a more acceptable plan.

City staff responded by hosting a trio of public workshops to solicit input, but those devolved into at times fierce debates over the merits of the staircase and whether the city should have to perform a full-blown environmental review. Staff contended that the project was exempt from environmental review due to concerns that the bluff could collapse and destroy both the switchback and the parking lot.

After two more hours of public testimony at the Dec. 6 hearing, the commission decided to sidestep the issue of the design of the new staircase and parking lot and the environmental review by ruling that the new project was too similar to the previous iteration.

This came in spite of staff’s explanation that the changes made in building material and architecture were substantial enough to warrant consideration.

Both Hubbard and O’Grady agreed with staff. Ehlers, however, said that he didn’t agree with staff on the environmental report, and believed the city could use the year to come up with a maintenance plan that would eliminate the need for a staircase altogether.

Doyle said that he liked the architectural changes the staff made to the original design, but agreed with Ehlers that it shouldn’t return until next summer.

But O’Grady said that it wasn’t the commission’s place to argue on the merits of a staircase, as it was the City Council that directed commission to consider it.

Opponents of the project cheered the commission’s decision.

“Huge local victory last night for Beacon’s Beach and the bluff,” said Ari Marsh of the group Preserve Beacon’s. “This historic win results in the continued preservation of the Beacon’s ecosystem, bluff and iconic switchback trail.”

The Planning Commission’s decision can be appealed by a council member or a member of the public within 30 days of the decision.

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