Del Mar’s Battle With California Panel Points to Potential Nationwide Disputes Ahead
Article by: CoStar | Lou Hirsh | October 2019
The upscale but relatively tiny seaside city of Del Mar, north of San Diego, is locked in a dispute with the California Coastal Commission that could have statewide implications for development as coastline cities brace for the future effects of anticipated rising sea levels. And the outcome could affect coastal property throughout the United States.
Del Mar, the smallest city in San Diego County, with a population just under 4,400, also has some of the region’s most popular beaches and most expensive coastal real estate. The city is one of the first to submit a completed proposal for its plan to adapt to accelerated sea level rise to the state for certification, something all coastal cities will have to do as part of a new requirement from the Coastal Commission, the entity that oversees oceanfront development in the state.
The city has proposed beach and bluff restoration and preservation but the Coastal Commission is pushing back, asking for contingency plans if that fails.
Now, in a move watched by other seaside communities, Del Mar is balking at the Coastal Commission's proposed changes to its preparedness plans, which the city contends would create a back-door route toward what is known as "managed retreat" or "planned retreat."
That generally entails having cities or public agencies acquire residential and commercial properties within areas identified as vulnerable to sea rise, or helping finance property owners’ relocation to safer areas. Del Mar officials contend that coastal property in that city is too expensive to acquire, and that the level of contingency planning requested by the state could impose an unnecessary level of expense for preparation that is not warranted for all coastal areas of the state.
"We have a plan, and we stand by our plan," said Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden at a recent council meeting. The city argues a one-size approach won't be practical for all communities and city resources would be put to better use by focusing on current plans for regular beach and bluff restoration.
With California officials in early stages of reviewing cities’ and counties’ plans to prepare for expected sea elevation spurred by global warming, a key issue now emerging is state vs. local control over how cities specifically choose to prepare for property-related risks that have already been identified at the local level.
How the dispute between Del Mar and the Coastal Commission shakes out could set a precedent for the rest of the state's cities as they prepare to submit their proposals for climate change. It could also dictate who will ultimately control those plans and what cities will be forced to pay to carry them out.
"It’s a challenging question that cities in this state and others are going to have to deal with eventually," said Charles Lester, director of the Ocean & Coastal Policy Center at University of California Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. "A huge part of the Southern California economy is geared around beaches and coastal recreation."
The Coastal Commission is expected to review the Del Mar matter further at the state panel’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Wednesday in Chula Vista. The commission has so far approved plans only for the county of San Diego and the cities of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and San Clemente, and more local plans will be reviewed at upcoming commission meetings.
The Coastal Commission contends it is not forcing any city to adopt managed retreat practices, but wants more details from Del Mar as to how it will identify and address problems if beach restoration proves insufficient over time. Coastal Commission staff have recommended that the panel’s voting board reject the Del Mar sea-rise preparation plan unless the city makes 25 modifications, all of which the city has rejected.
Visitors fill Del Mar’s beaches and hotels for popular annual events like the San Diego County Fair and two horse-racing seasons at the iconic Del Mar Racetrack. Del Mar officials estimate that based on current conditions, a walkable beach can be maintained with a commitment for adding about 190,000 cubic yards of sand about every 10 years at a cost of around $5.7 million, approaching about $20 million per decade if sea levels rise 5 feet or more from where they are now.
The Coastal Commission's suggestion that the city explore options that include buying up beachfront property could cost the city of Del Mar significantly more than that.
The commission and Del Mar officials declined to comment beyond remarks made at recent meetings and in staff reports and letters sent between the two parties.
The current dispute involving Del Mar points to development matters that are likely to erupt more frequently in coastal states nationwide, as rising temperatures, destructive weather patterns and melting ice caps reshape beachfronts and the planning for what gets built on them.
"We’re getting more cities asking us about issues like this," said Katharine Burgess, vice president in the urban resilience department of the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., which deals with land use and development issues. "Cities are experimenting with different tools and funding mechanisms to address this."
There are various forms of managed retreat. In places like Miami and surrounding Dade County in coastal South Florida, among the regions most vulnerable to sea-level rise, some communities are forming "transfer of development rights" programs, where land owners sever unused development rights in exchange for compensation from another landowner who wants additional development rights to another parcel.
Burgess said other coastal communities are generally setting policies that encourage developments in more inland locations away from coastal zones, such as transit-oriented projects, that can be built at lower cost than in beach-adjacent areas.
Lester, a former Coastal Commission executive director, said it is not unreasonable for the agency to seek close collaboration with cities as to how they brace for sea rise, and it does not appear the agency is dictating policy to California cities.
Del Mar’s beach restoration focus is sound, he said, though cities will need to have backup plans related to how development will be impacted if restoration is not sufficient. Many East Coast cities, for instance, are facing difficulties with beach restoration as several recent hurricanes have created more destructive coastal conditions.
Lester said the mix of solutions will not be limited to retreat or restoration, and will depend on various factors such as property elevation, the existence of seawalls and other man-made barriers, and what’s surrounding the development in a given location. Cities may need to have developers assume more risk when they build projects in certain zones, perhaps entering into agreements that prevent developers from suing cities decades after projects are placed in vulnerable areas and sea rise starts to have visible impact.
"It’s not a buyout," Lester said. "It’s just getting developers to take more responsibility for their investments."
In 2018, the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists reported that within the next 15 years, roughly 147,000 existing homes and 7,000 commercial properties along U.S. coastlines, currently valued at $63 billion, are at risk of being inundated by rising sea levels an average of 26 times per year.
By 2045, nearly 311,000 homes nationwide will be chronically flooded, reflecting a doubling of at-risk homes between 2030 and 2045. By the end of the century, the group said, as many as 2.4 million residential properties and 107,000 commercial properties will be regularly inundated by rising sea levels. Those properties today are valued at $1.07 trillion, an amount that researchers said is roughly equivalent to the GDP of the state of Florida.
Del Mar’s beaches are among the most popular in the San Diego region, which has helped to make nearby homes and commercial spaces that much more valuable. By focusing on beach and bluff restoration and preservation, the city is seeking to address its own projections that it could lose its beaches to sea rise by the year 2060.
But in a recent city staff report, officials said removal of current beachfront homes and other properties would not alleviate risk of flooding because of lower elevations in the rest of the neighborhood, "and planned retreat is not feasible for Del Mar."
City staff said that "Del Mar understands that climate change is a real threat but recognizes that there is inherent uncertainty in the projections of sea level rise and extreme events," adding there is time to take a more thoughtful approach to climate change adaption consistent with the city’s community plan.
"The city’s designated development areas are appropriately located and there is no imminent threat to any homes or businesses in the city of Del Mar," officials said.
But because of that long-term uncertainty, Coastal Commission officials want more sea-rise preparation details from Del Mar and other cities that put their plans forward in coming months. In a letter to Del Mar officials, commission staff said the agency supports the city’s efforts at beach restoration and understands its opposition to managed retreat, but "we do think the City should be establishing thresholds or triggers for when reassessment will occur."
The coastal panel also wants Del Mar to more specifically designate which parcels or zones are potentially vulnerable to projected sea rise, and areas where future development might be subject to requirements for real estate disclosure to potential buyers, or greater assumption of risk by developers.
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