California coastal regulators blast Del Mar for rejecting ‘retreat’ from sea-level rise

Homes along Ocean Front between Powerhouse Park and the San Dieguito River in Del Mar are threatened by rising sea levels.
(John Gibbins)

Two top officials at the California Coastal Commission criticized Del Mar this week for continuing to reject “managed retreat” as an option to deal with sea level rise, saying they hope the city will reconsider.

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Two top officials at the California Coastal Commission blasted Del Mar this week for continuing to reject “managed retreat” as an option to deal with sea level rise, saying they hope the city will reconsider its stance.

Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said he initially was inclined to deny Del Mar’s request to postpone a hearing Wednesday on the city’s proposed plan for adapting to higher water. However, he granted the delay after the city manager indicated Del Mar remains open to negotiations.

“I hope that cooler heads will prevail,” Ainsworth said in a public explanation of his decision at the commission’s monthly meeting in Chula Vista.


If approved by the Coastal Commission, the adaptation plan would become part of Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program that gives the city authority over local development.

Commission Chairwoman Dayna Bochco, who said she grew up in Del Mar and remains “very familiar” with the coastal community, also weighed in on the issue.

“I just hope that the city of Del Mar and other communities up and down the state begin to understand that this isn’t about the Coastal Commission, this isn’t about us doing things to you,” Bochco said.

“This is about sea level rise, and it’s coming,” she said. “It’s coming much more quickly than anyone ever expected. I would really encourage local government and citizenry to read what’s going on on the East Coast, where they have had so many situations in which homes have been ... destroyed through hurricanes and sea level rise. This country is going to have to adapt.”

Del Mar created its plan to adapt to the rising ocean after four years of meetings, phone calls and detailed correspondence between residents, city staffers and the Coastal Commission staff.

“We have a long-term plan, and we think it will work,” Amanda Lee, Del Mar’s principal planner, said following meeting. “We are going to try to set up a meeting as soon as possible, probably in the first or second week of November.”


Any proposed changes would have to be reviewed by the City Council and the adaptation plan could be back on the Coastal Commission’s agenda in coming months.

Del Mar initially submitted its adaptation plan to the commission for review last year. It relies primarily on maintaining its existing seawalls and the continual restoration of sand to its eroding beaches, and rejects the sometimes controversial strategy of managed retreat.

Managed retreat, which calls for removing structures from the advancing sea, would not be practical in Del Mar because of the high property values there, the city said. The Coastal Commission countered with 25 suggested modifications that the city has said could become a “back door” to retreat.

Even as quakes, wildfires and drought have taken up most of our focus, the slow-moving disaster of rising seas has paralyzed Californians, and left us with “both too much and not enough time” to act, as environment reporter Rosanna Xia wrote in a special report examining sea level rise and the future of California’s disappearing coastline.

July 11, 2019

“I was quite frankly surprised and very disappointed that the City Council summarily rejected all 25 of our suggested modifications without any discussion or consultation with us whatsoever,” Ainsworth said Wednesday.

“Our suggestions were incredibly measured and, for the most part, simply incorporated the adaptation strategies and measures from the city’s own implementation plan,” he said, adding that most of the suggestions were merely “tweaks” of policy language.

While the state’s report did not specifically say Del Mar’s plan must include managed retreat, residents say the requested modifications are much the same thing. They include additional monitoring of coastal conditions and “triggers” that would require further action by the city.


Specific triggers, such as the erosion of a bluff by 10 feet or the removal of the coastal railroad, have long been a sore point with Del Mar residents.

Del Mar City Council members discussed the proposed modifications at their Oct. 8 meeting and agreed to oppose them all.

“We have managed retreat lurking between these words,” said Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland.

Sand replenishment is expected to become more difficult and expensive as sea level rise continues, according to scientists. Simply putting dredging equipment into place to start an operation costs $1 million to $2 million.

Also, that solution can be short-lived. A single powerful winter storm can wipe away huge amounts of sand.

“One of the critical issues is that we start to come to grips with the cost of sea level rise ... what it means for individual communities and the region ... and how that affects the strategies,” said Donne Brownsey, one of the 12 voting members of the commission.


Diehl writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.