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Residents voice concern over potential for managed retreat

DEL MAR — Del Mar’s newly amended Local Coastal Program is inching closer to potential certification by the California Coastal Commission, and residents urged the City Council and staff to prevent any “back door” approach to managed retreat at a July 15 council meeting.

Managed retreat is a method of sea-level rise adaptation that involves removing oceanfront private property, public infrastructure and coastal protection in order to allow the shoreline to naturally creep inland.

The term has taken on deeply negative connotations in Del Mar — where managed retreat would mean relinquishing multi-million-dollar beachfront homes to the rising sea, particularly in the north beach area. Residents are adamantly against the option, fearing that accepting managed retreat as an adaptation strategy could take a toll on property values.

Del Mar’s north beach predominantly relies on seawalls as a form of shoreline protection. The neighborhood, which sits level to the beach, is home to about 600 properties.

The city’s newly crafted Local Coastal Program (LCP) amendments incorporate a thoroughly developed adaptation plan, strategies meant to outline the city’s approach to looming sea-level rise. The plan relies on methods such as beach sand replenishment, and rejects managed retreat.

The amendments — which were approved by the council in October 2018 — await a final recommendation from the Coastal Commission in October 2019. The Coastal Commission certifies LCP amendments, ensuring they are in compliance with the Coastal Act.

Noting the overwhelming local opposition to managed retreat, council passed a commitment resolution on Oct. 15, 2018, expressing its opposition to managed retreat and its intention “to reject any proposed modification by the Coastal Commission which substantially deviates from the adopted adaptation plan and local coastal program amendments.”

At the July meeting, staff updated the community and council on the Coastal Commission’s take so far, which is primarily based on preliminary discussions with Coastal Commission staff and a letter sent by Coastal Commission officials in September 2018 listing suggestions based on the city’s draft LCP amendments.

At this point, the Coastal Commission seems to be on board with the amendments and the city’s take on managed retreat, based on the city’s staff report and a presentation by Principal Planner Amanda Lee. But residents are still worried about how Coastal Commission’s suggestions might challenge local control or pave a more long-term path to managed retreat.

“I would really ask the council to stick to their guns on what we have,” said resident Larry Hayward, referring to the LCP that city staff, volunteers and countless stakeholders worked several years to amend.

Residents were concerned about Coastal Commission’s suggestions to change certain definitions related to shoreline protection. For example, the Coastal Commission defines “existing development” as structures that existed prior to the effective date of the Coastal Act — Jan. 1, 1977. According to the staff report, this definition suggests that only properties built before that date can have shoreline protection.

But according to Lee, any new development in Del Mar’s north beach area can request shoreline protection if it’s consistent with the city’s LCP and Beach Preservation Initiative — a voter initiative adopted in 1988 that regulates use of the city’s beach area.

“We allow that today, and that’s what we will continue to allow under the certified LCP,” Lee told The Coast News. “ … that’s really the importance of our LCP, it provides the process and rules for new development to have shoreline protection here in Del Mar.”

Based on the city’s dialogue with the Coastal Commission so far, Lee said Coastal Commission staff recognizes that their interpretation of “existing development” doesn’t work in Del Mar. “We have a different set of facts that apply,” Lee said, pointing to the multi-faceted role of north beach seawalls in protecting public infrastructure and providing for coastal access.

According to the staff report, the Coastal Commission would like Del Mar to commit to future LCP consistency review in 10 years, or when monitored factors such as beach width, frequency of flood damage and distance between coastal bluff edge and development reach certain “thresholds” or “triggers.”

A threshold or trigger could be a certain maximum of sea-level rise, for example, that would “trigger” a longer-term strategy. Residents are concerned that developing trigger points or thresholds might lead to the consideration of managed retreat in the future.

Jerry Jacobs, president of the Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition, urged the council to hold strong to the language in the city’s revised LCP and reject Coastal Commission’s suggestions for triggers, or a consistency review.

“We strongly oppose all attempts by the (Coastal Commission) to impose modifications on us, and we support local control,” Jacobs said, also calling the consistency review “a backdoor to managed retreat.”

Council weighed in on the suggestions thus far, largely reasserting the city’s intention to reject managed retreat and stick with the LCP, as amended by the city.

“I’m not in favor of pulling pieces of it out individually and trying to change things,” Councilman Dwight Worden said.