A battle over how aggressively California beach cities must plan for sea-level rise is headed for a major showdown, one that could send reverberations up and down the state’s coast.

The California Coastal Commission will decide next week whether Del Mar, a beach town in San Diego County, needs to overhaul its climate adaptation plans. The city submitted a blueprint to the state commission with plans to add sand to beaches, build a levee near a river and make homes more flood-resistant.

The city’s biggest statement, however, focused on what it won’t do. Del Mar rejected the idea of “managed retreat” as an option for dealing with rising seas by removing beachfront homes (Climatewire, Oct. 2, 2018). That came after the state commission asked local governments to look at it as an adaptation strategy.

A staff report prepared for the commission’s Oct. 16 meeting recommends rejecting Del Mar’s plan unless the city accepts multiple revisions. The report doesn’t ask the city to add managed retreat as a policy. But its proposed revisions recommend that Del Mar add “triggers” to its plan that would require the city to revisit its adaptation strategies if certain climate conditions are realized.

Those include Del Mar’s beach narrowing to 25 feet or less in the winter and 80 feet or less in the summer for three out of five years. That would force the city to submit a revised plan with that state commission, which has broad authority over coastal development.

Other triggers include the presence of extreme storms in three out of any five years or a bluff edge eroding to within 35 feet of a development. Even if none of those happened, the city would have to reappear before the commission in a decade.

“We want to push back really hard on that,” said Terry Gaasterland, a Del Mar city councilwoman. “They’re really overreaching, as far as we perceive it.”

Beach cities submit local land-use policies to the Coastal Commission. If approved, the plans serve as guidebooks for development. Del Mar is among the first to go before the commission with a plan addressing sea-level rise. How the commission responds could signal how aggressively it expects cities up and down the coast to address climate impacts.

The commission, which oversees development on about 1,100 miles of coastland, says its mission is to preserve the state’s movie-scene beaches for future use by all residents. It argues that long-term planning is essential to prepare for unstoppable sea-level rise.

Coastal cities, meanwhile, are listening to beachfront homeowners, who fear that their property values could fall under what they see as heavy-handed requirements by the commission. Those cities often rely on property taxes from well-to-do residents with homes valued at more than $1 million.

There’s long been tension between state and local interests—and sea-level rise amplifies the friction, said Charles Lester, the Coastal Commission’s executive director from 2011 to 2016, who is now director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“It may be depending on your location that your property only has a certain economic life,” Lester said, due to erosion of a cliff or a flooded shoreline. But, he added, “I wouldn’t put that all at the feet of the state. The primary driver is sea-level rise.”

The commission staff report argues that Del Mar fails to articulate what it will do if disasters outpace the city’s plans.

The Del Mar document “does not include the level of detail necessary to address the future impacts of [sea-level rise]—and future extreme events,” the staff report said. “Given the serious consequences those vulnerabilities could have on coastal resources, development, and public safety in Del Mar, it is important that the [plan] better address sea-level rise hazards.”

Battle over sea walls

Del Mar’s City Council will meet tonight to talk about how to proceed. The Coastal Commission staff report recommends 25 total changes, and 12 of those are unacceptable, said Gaasterland, the councilwoman.

Unacceptable revisions include asking Del Mar to require homeowners on cliffs to stipulate in property deeds that they’re in a hazardous area or one that might become hazardous, she said. Those selling a home would have to disclose that “the property is potentially vulnerable to erosion and other hazards influenced by sea-level rise.”

The risks of not reaching an agreement with the commission are “very high,” said Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden, a retired coastal law attorney. If the City Council doesn’t approve the city’s proposed Local Coastal Plan, an earlier Del Mar rulebook from 2001 would stay in place. The state commission then might have more say in decisions on sea walls and other developments.

The Coastal Commission could tell Del Mar that its 2001 plan didn’t address sea-level rise, so “you’ve left it to us. We’re going to interpret as we think best,” Worden said, predicting the state’s response.

If Del Mar uses its 2001 plan, “it becomes more likely that inappropriate development that has adverse impacts on coastal resources, including public access, is occurring,” said Noaki Schwartz, a Coastal Commission spokeswoman, in an email.

Fearing managed retreat

While the commission staff report doesn’t ask Del Mar to include managed retreat in its plan, Del Mar council members and residents said they see it by reading between the lines.

“They have all these other conditions that are kind of backdoor ways of undercutting our position on [rejecting] managed retreat,” Worden said.

The commission wants Del Mar to rewrite its policies to say that any home with cumulative remodeling of more than 50% since 2001 must meet updated codes. That would mean the owner probably couldn’t get a sea wall or would have to put one farther inland with a smaller house, Worden said.

“That’s managed retreat,” Worden said. “That’s my greatest fear.”

Del Mar resident Laura DeMarco said the proposed change would mean “no one can improve their houses, because then they lose the right to shoreline protection. ... Basically, managed retreat is when you remove the right to shoreline protection.”

Lester, the former commission executive director, said there’s too much emphasis on the words “managed retreat.”

“People have gotten overly focused on that idea, as if it connotes some mandatory instructions” for property owners to abandon their development, Lester said. The term instead “imagines retreat happening, but in a managed way.”

Asking cities to set future planning policies is needed because more flooding and cliff erosion are coming, he said.

“What we’ve done to date is more like unmanaged retreat,” Lester said, where in cities like Pacifica, south of San Francisco, buildings on eroding cliffs were tagged unsafe and later demolished.

Some of the “triggers” the commission staff recommends—including the beach narrowing to 25 feet—come from Del Mar’s adaptation plan. The city calls them thresholds that would signal action is needed.

However, the commission staff report said, “the Adaptation Plan does not specify what actions would be taken after those thresholds are crossed, but rather states that the City prefers to maintain a flexible approach to future adaptation.”

Gaasterland, the Del Mar city councilwoman, said the city already has areas of the beach where there is no sand in the winter during high tide. Other areas of the beach are wide, she said, and the commission staff wants one standard, “which means they don’t really understand the local context.”

“We would already be out of compliance by the numbers they’re giving,” Gaasterland said. Of those minimum widths, she said, “they’ve been passed for decades.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.