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Del Mar Beachfront Facing Challenges Of ‘Managed Retreat’

New construction in Del Mar's beach community, Nov. 1, 2017.

Photo by Alison St John

Above: New construction in Del Mar's beach community, Nov. 1, 2017.

Del Mar Beachfront Facing Challenges Of 'Managed Retreat'


Terry Gaasterland, chair, Del Mar Sea Level Rise Technical Advisory Committee


The city of Del Mar plans to issue a new draft report this week on how to adapt to sea level rise. The report has been changed to remove a strategy that homeowners fear could affect their property values.

Del Mar is a small city, with fewer than 5,000 residents, but that makes it a good petri dish for trying new things. Laura Engeman of the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative said that is one reason the city won a grant from the California Coastal Commission to start working on adaptation plans for future sea level rise.

“These are really hard questions for any community to tackle,” Engeman said. “And a city like Del Mar that’s very small, it’s like looking through a microscope at all of the issues. In a very small community, you’ve got all of the stakeholders here and they’re the same issues that are relatable to virtually any coastal community in California.”


For the past two years, Del Mar’s Sea Level Rise Technical Advisory Committee, or STAC, has been working on a strategy.

“Del Mar really is at the front end of some of the cities in California,“ Engeman said, “really thinking about how to plan for these hazards and prepare the community. Del Mar is the first community to develop a community-wide plan that holistically looks at its vulnerabilities and what it’s going to do to prepare for that."

Conservative projections conclude Del Mar will experience one foot of sea level rise by the year 2050, three feet by the next century.

STAC came up with a draft plan that includes triggers for when to relocate infrastructure, a strategy known as “managed retreat.” The city’s pump station and a fire station, for example, will be threatened by regular flooding at some point and will need to be moved.

For many homes in Del Mar, the first line of defense against rising seas and eroding coastline is the railway line that runs just feet from the edge of the steep bluffs overlooking the beach.

However, at the north end of town, a beach community of about 300 multi-million dollar homes sits right next to the sand. Seawalls protect those fronting the ocean from high tides and storms.

At a STAC meeting in September, homeowners in the beach community reacted to any mention in the report of relocating private property, or suggestions their seawalls will not protect them forever.

“If you take out the seawall," said Larry Hayward, "my neighbor behind my house is six and a half feet below mine, so if you take out those sea walls, those houses in the entire beach colony are underwater."

“Good luck, because now you have to disclose that your properties are under attack if you go to sell it,” said Lucille Lindsay. “Good luck getting refinanced on something that is technically disappearing.”

Some at the meeting expressed skepticism about the science of climate change and sea level rise.

“The analysis of global warming has been one of the greatest absurd propositions of modern times," said Jerry Jacob, “with a tiny fraction of data on climate change from 1850 forward. I think the earth’s been around a lot longer than that.”

Ironically, the scientist who developed the Keeling Curve — a measurement of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and a key indicator of global warming — was a Del Mar resident.

Del Mar City Councilman Dave Druker said Charles David Keeling was also the father of Del Mar’s community plan. That, Druker said, is the reason most houses on the bluffs in Del Mar are set further back from the edge than in most other coastal cities.

“They were thoughtful when they created the community plans: let’s keep stuff at least 50 feet from the bluff,” Druker said. “So I’m not going to argue with Dave Keeling.”

But, Druker said, because of the reaction from private property owners, the concept of “managed retreat” for private property has been removed from the draft adaptation plan.

“Right now the draft does not talk about retreat, it basically has removed retreat as one of the ways to resolve sea level rise,” he said. “We are trying to figure out how to thread the needle of good policy and making sure people don’t feel threatened."

Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition

But former California Sen. Mark Wyland, who owns a home in Del Mar’s beach community, said he and his neighbors felt blindsided by the STAC report and threatened by its recommendations.

“It’s been going on, but we weren’t really aware of it until that meeting,” he said, “which is why you saw such a big turn out, and a lot of emotional responses. The notion of planned retreat seems to us impractical and unworkable.”

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Del Mar City Councilman Dave Druker on the bluffs overlooking the North County beach community, Nov. 7, 2017.

Wyland is part of a newly formed group of private property owners, The Del Mar Beach Preservation Coalition. They want the adaptation report to avoid mentioning relocating property and instead focus on things like sand replenishment to preserve the beach.

“This is why people want to be here,” Wyland said, gesturing toward the sand. “And we have to maintain it. People are committed to coming up with practical ways to maintain that. It has to include, probably, replenishment, where that’s appropriate."

Sand replenishment is expensive. A San Diego Association of Governments program in 2012 cost $28 million. Neighboring Encinitas and Solana Beach have sand replenishment projects in the works with federal funding: they could cost more than $150 million over the next 50 years.

Engeman said the jury is still out on whether sand replenishment is a cost-effective strategy.

“Because if we’re getting increasing coastal storms and we’re spending millions of dollars on sand that a coastal storm is washing over 50 percent of in the next season, then that’s probably not a cost-effective strategy for most communities,” Engeman said.

Engeman said economic studies show that preparing for climate change may be expensive, but in the long run, it will be cheaper than waiting.

“The losses in the future are going to be greater and more expensive if we don’t take action now,” she said.

Del Mar is an affluent community. Druker said residents recently approved a 1 percent sales tax that could raise more than $1 million a year. That could be used to pay for sand replenishment, he said. But that won’t hold back the sea forever.

“My take on this is,” he said, “if I look 50 years from now — I won’t be alive — but somebody will say, ‘in 2010 or in 2017, somebody could have created a plan, why didn’t you?’ and I don’t want somebody to say that.”

Looking out across a low sea wall at the waves breaking on the sandy beach beyond, Wyland said he hasn’t got a plan, at least not yet.

“No, not really,” he said. “At some point, you have to do that. I haven’t.”


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