DEL MAR — The California Coastal Commission has approved drastic infrastructure changes to the Del Mar bluffs that will limit beach access and alter one of the last natural bluff faces along the Southern California coast to the devastation of many residents.
The plans, designed to fortify the unstable rail tracks running through the area, were proposed by the San Diego County Association of Government (SANDAG) in their $68 million, fifth-phase bluff stabilization project covering a 1.6-mile stretch from around Coast Avenue in Del Mar to Torrey Pines State Park and unanimously approved by the Coastal Commission on June 8 at the Del Mar Hilton.
Along with over half a mile of seawalls along various stretches of the beach, the three-year project suggests implementing improved drainage mechanisms along the tracks and on the beach below, grading and filling to reduce the bluff slope and approximately 3,800 linear feet of mostly-underground stabilization structures such as soldier piles on the upper bluffs.
The consensus among the commission and SANDAG representatives was that these measures are an undesirable but necessary step to protect the upper bluffs and the railway running along them from sea level rise and erosion for at least the next 30 years, especially following local bluff collapses in Del Mar as recently as 2021.
“We need to take this long-term look at sea-level rise,” said Commissioner Mike O’Malley, a San Diego County resident. “I never thought I would be approving one mile of seawalls along a coast in my own county, but here we are. There’s no ‘perfect,’ there’s not even a ‘good’ here, but we’re doing the best with the circumstances.”
Dozens of longtime Del Mar residents, city officials and the Surfrider Foundation San Diego County chapter submitted public comments requesting that the seawalls be removed from the plan and further environmental analysis be done, claiming that the adverse impacts on public beach access, sand supply and the natural shoreline were not worth it.
“I’ve been sobbing. They’re destroying my beach, my town,” 23-year Del Mar resident Camilla Rang said after the meeting.
SANDAG Senior Engineer Allie Devaux argued that the seawalls could not be removed from the plan, noting that the seawalls, drainage and stabilization elements all depend on one another to protect the area.
“Much like a three-legged stool, if one of these components is not constructed, it leaves the tracks vulnerable to instability,” Devaux said.
Due to projected adverse impacts on public beach access, recreation, sand supply and natural shoreline processes, SANDAG’s project comes with conditions. These include requiring SANDAG to remove the infrastructure after 30 years, prohibiting impacts on local species, requiring submission of environmental impact mitigation plans, and a capital improvement project establishing new pedestrian railroad crossings at either 7th or 11th streets, an accessway from the bluff top to the beach, and enhancement of an existing blufftop trail between 4th Street and Seagrove Park.
Del Mar City Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland said while the city appreciates these proposed capital improvements, they need more solid commitments from SANDAG to see these projects through, move the train tracks out of Del Mar as soon as possible, and pursue mitigation measures.
SANDAG is proposing to remove the stabilization structures once the county moves the train tracks inland off the bluffs, a massive $3 billion undertaking expected to begin in 2035 at the earliest but is allowed to leave them in place until 2052 if need be.
“We need certainty and a clear commitment that the railroad tracks will be relocated by 2035 … The SANDAG proposal for this project is unclear on the timing,” Gaasterland said.
“The prospect of having safe, legal rail crossings and safe beach access will fulfill objectives that our City, your Commission and the Coastal Act have sought for years. These are important to all of us. However, it remains essential that the impacts of the entire project, especially the seawalls, must be fully mitigated. It is also critically important that the required mitigation work go through a process that allows for public input,” she added.
A rough timeline for the endeavor includes finalizing the project design and permitting by the fall and then putting it out for bid, with construction expected to begin by spring 2023 and last for around three years, according to Devaux.
Residents and commission members have also expressed concerns about a lack of cooperation from the North County Transit District, which manages the railway through Del Mar and is currently fighting to affirm its sole authority over the train tracks from the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The district is also facing lawsuits from the Coastal Commission and Del Mar residents after moving ahead with a controversial fencing project along the bluffs to limit deaths on the railway.
A letter from NCTD Executive Director Matthew Tucker claimed the commission was acting out of its jurisdiction by approving the bluff stabilization project, stating the district would not authorize it to move forward unless the commission deleted the conditions promising to implement capital improvement projects and remove the seawalls after 30 years.
“NCTD is unaware of any funding that has been authorized to meet the requests of the CCC to implement their requirements. Moreover, from an NCTD perspective, the CCC requests do not support [the] state of good repair needs, improvements to mobility, climate change or advance social equity outcomes,” Tucker said.
Coastal Commission chief counsel Alex Halperin asserted that the commission does have jurisdiction as a state agency and urged them not to remove the requested conditions.