The Coast News Group
An aerial view of the Del Mar coastline captured by a drone. Photo by Marley St. John
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‘Managed retreat’ nixed in sea-level rise plan


DEL MAR — Managed retreat, which would over time remove sea walls, homes and public facilities and infrastructure, was eliminated from the city’s sea-level adaptation plan at the May 21 meeting.

State law requires cities to prepare vulnerability assessments and establish climate adaptation and resiliency strategies to address identified local hazards.

Del Mar’s adaptation plan includes a combination of beach nourishment, river channel dredging and sand retention and management strategies to maintain the existing walkable beach and public beach access for as long as possible.

It concludes that managed or planned retreat “is not a necessary or feasible strategy in Del Mar” to protect the public beach, bluffs and coastal resources from a projected increase in the frequency and intensity of storms, flooding, erosion and sea level rise through the year 2100.

Data supports the conclusion that Del Mar’s proposed approach is science-based and feasible to meet public and private goals through the middle of this century, although the city is required to plan for an approximately 7-foot rise in sea level by 2100.

Pretty much all of the city’s approximately 600 oceanfront homes are protected from erosion by some sort of retention device, such as sea walls or riprap.

Those homeowners say just the mention of planned retreat would severely impact their property values and any potential future sale of their home.

To meet the state requirement, the city created the Sea Level Rise Technical Advisory, which held more than 20 public meetings. Based on stakeholder input, the committee concluded it is too early in the process to include planned retreat as an option.

The adaptation plan, which must be certified by the California Coastal Commission, is consistent with the Coastal Act, according to the staff report.

Planned retreat would require the city, over time, to buy coastal properties. Residents in those homes would also need to be relocated.

It was concluded that the strategy is not a viable option for eight reasons.

  • It conflicts with Del Mar’s vision for the future, the voter-approved community plan and its certified local coastal program, or LCP.
  • It provides no clear net public benefit or current need, environmental or otherwise, because the favored adaptation strategies are sufficient.
  • It is not feasible due to economic, environmental, engineering, social, political and legal constraints and uncertainties.
  • Extremely high land value in Del Mar means public acquisition of any private property the city does not control will be difficult and cost prohibitive for the city to pursue.
  • Alternative locations are not available for displaced residents to relocate in Del Mar.
  • Existing shoreline protection structures for homes along the beachfront help protect lower-lying public and private property from ocean flooding.
  • Removing existing shoreline protection structures and those “front row” homes would likely not alleviate the risk of flooding due to the lower elevation of the rest of the neighborhood.
  • There is a high threat of legal risk if retreat of private property is pursued.


Initially the plan stated planned retreat would be “considered if necessary as part of future planning and plan amendment if the City’s favored strategies prove unable to meet the identified goals.”

That line, however, was eliminated at the request of several residents.

Jon Corn, a coastal land-use attorney for more than 20 years, said he likes Del Mar’s adaptation plan because it “reaches the correct conclusion to reject planned retreat.”

“It’s the wrong thing to do here,” he said.

He suggested including it in the city’s community plan rather than submitting it as an LCP amendment.

“If history repeats itself — which it usually does and probably will here — there’s a very high risk and it’s almost a certainty that what the Coastal Commission will do will be to reject your plan … and they will rewrite it,” Corn said.

Because the process for an amendment can take two or three years, that means a future City Council will have to consider adopting a plan rewritten by the state agency.

“They usually pick on the small coastal towns … because they know they can basically outlast you,” he said. “They’ll wear you down. … We don’t want to take that risk.”

He said the California Coastal Act doesn’t require the city to submit the adaptation plan as an LCP amendment and likened the Coastal Commission to the “vampire at the door” and the amendment as an invitation to come in.

“The vampire can only come if you invite him and if you invite him in he’s going to bite you,” Corn said.

Several of the more than two dozen speakers agreed.

Council members will decide how to process the adaptation plan at a future meeting this summer.