After four-hour meeting filled with emotional testimony on both sides of a proposed concrete staircase at Beacon’s Beach, the Encinitas Planning Commission sent a clear message:
The staircase is not a good fit for the beach.
The Planning Commission voted 4-0 July 19 to send the project back to staff, rejecting staff’s recommendation – which was endorsed by the Surfrider Foundation, California Coastal Commission and Department of State Parks – to move swiftly to construct the stairs to avoid a bluff-top collapse that could destroy the beach’s iconic switchback staircase and parking lot.
Siding with residents who came out in force to oppose the proposal, the commissioners said the staff needed to gather more community input and find a solution that fits more with the natural setting of the beach.
“I think it needs to look a lot better,” Commission chairman Glenn O’Grady said. “It needs to blend in a lot better.”
The commission also rejected staff’s assertion that the bluff’s collapse was imminent, and requested the city conduct a full environmental review, rather than seeking an emergency permit that would exempt the project from environmental review.
“Either we are in imminent danger and trail should be fenced off, or it’s not, and it should be able to go through true (state environmental) process, so all residents get a chance to feel they have participated in a normal legal process,” Planning Commissioner Jody Hubbard said.
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 past 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.
Critics had derisively nicknamed the staircase “Beacon’s Pier” and compared it to a “Las Vegas Skybridge.”
A group called “Preserve Beacon’s” began a petition drive and collected more than 500 signatures of residents and surfers opposed to the project.
But the city’s plans received the backing of the Surfrider Foundation, which said the city’s plans was the best compromise of maintaining beach access and keeping the public safe. Surfrider policy manager Julia Chunn-Heer likened the bluff’s instability to a Jenga tower, teetering on the brink of collapse.
Chunn-Heer’s comments were echoed by environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, who previously worked for Surfrider. Gonzalez said that the staircase was a better option than armoring the beach, which “destroys beaches.”
One by one, however, residents and a lawyer representing Leucadia coastal property owners disagreed with the assertion that the bluff’s collapse was imminent.
Commissioner Kevin Doyle, who represents Old Encinitas on the panel, said that he favored delaying approval and taking a chance that weather and seismic conditions would hold long enough for more public input and a more thorough environmental process.
“I would roll the dice and say let’s wait a year, take a year or two and do workshops…so we get what we want and we’re all involved,” Doyle said, generating applause from the standing-room only audience. “We haven’t done that this time.”