A rich town’s choice: Protect its homes or save the beach?

By Anne C. Mulkern | 07/21/2017 08:20 AM EDT

DEL MAR, Calif. — Kim and Marilyn Fletcher stood on the deck of their beachfront home watching waves crash onto the shore. They savored the view from behind a 22-foot-high sea wall, a common sight along this eroding stretch of coast. But that view is changing: The sandy beach in front of homes in this north San Diego County town is shrinking, and the high tide is edging closer.

Kim and Marilyn Fletcher installed a sea wall to protect their beachfront home in Del Mar, Calif.

Kim and Marilyn Fletcher installed a sea wall to protect their beachfront home in Del Mar, Calif. Anne C. Mulkern/E&E News

Part of an ongoing series. Click here for part one.

DEL MAR, Calif. — Kim and Marilyn Fletcher stood on the deck of their beachfront home watching waves crash onto the shore. They savored the view from behind a 22-foot-high sea wall, a common sight along this eroding stretch of coast.

The sandy beach in front of homes in this north San Diego County town is shrinking, and the high tide is edging closer.


Kim Fletcher, 89, witnessed the transformation. His maternal grandfather bought more than 10 acres of beachfront property in 1946. He built homes and sold lots. Fletcher visited his grandfather’s home two doors away. Dry sand was abundant.

"We had swing sets. We had trampolines. We had our Hobie Cats right out on the beach in front of the house," he said, referring to beach catamarans. "Now you couldn’t do that. There’s not enough sand. If you did put it down there, every time you got a reasonable high tide you’d be washed out."

It’s a different beach now. Today, there’s roughly 30 feet of sand before the water, depending on the time of day and year. High tide hits the base of sea wall at their house about 40 percent of the time, he said. This past winter, waves splashed over the top of the barricade during a few storms.

Residents blame the erosion on numerous factors, including a pier built to the north and a dam installed for a man-made lake. Those hurt beaches to the south, several people said. Others point to climate-change-driven sea-level rise, which scientists say will eat away more sand in the years ahead.

Del Mar, a tiny affluent enclave and a popular tourist destination, is wrestling with the changes. It’s a leader in terms of analyzing the havoc that rising seas could deliver. Using grants from state agencies, the city created a Sea Level Rise Committee staffed with mostly residents. The group commissioned a study on the dangers. That panel’s draft report said the walkable beach could disappear in winter months by 2030 and vanish completely by 2050.

"The beach above high tide will be lost to erosion with approximately 1 to 2 ft of sea-level rise, at which point beach erosion and coastal storms will threaten sea wall integrity," the report said.

The Fletchers’ beach will be one of the first places affected.

The report used scientific projections indicating that seas will rise 5 inches to a foot by 2030, and 1 to 2 feet by 2050. By the turn of the century, they could climb 5 ½ feet.

There’s more than homes and sand that are endangered in Del Mar. The downtown village features Tudor-themed architecture and unique stores. In the summer, the town fills with people attending horse races and the county fair. They’re on a site near the ocean. The fire department sits nearby. It’s all prone to flooding from higher ocean and river waters, the report said.

Beach vs. homes

None of the options for addressing the rising risks is ideal, said Terry Gaasterland, chair of the Sea Level Rise Committee.

Homeowners with multimillion-dollar properties are adding or replacing tidal barricades. The city allows sea walls, with residents footing the bill. Yet the armor accelerates loss of sand, according to Gaasterland, the Surfrider Foundation and others.

The walls set a hard line at the back of the beach. That prevents the natural erosion of bluffs and stops the beach from moving landward as the shoreline crumbles, said Madeline Cavalieri, coastal planner at the California Coastal Commission. The agency oversees most of the development along 1,100 miles in the state’s coastal zone.

The commission enforces the California Coastal Act, an expansive protection law. It largely limits sea walls to homes built before 1977, when the measure took effect. Homes built after that can apply for walls, if they’re considered in peril, but they’re not guaranteed to get one.

The commission under the coastal act must protect the beach for all residents, Cavalieri said.

"It’s a real issue right now," Cavalieri said. "If we don’t start to think about it, and start to prepare for the need to relocate some development away from the shoreline, we’re not going to have a beach."

Sea-level rise will affect poor and wealthy residents in California and around the world, said Katharine Mach, senior research scientist at Stanford University. Typically the wealthy are better able to prepare and to rebuild or move after damages, she said.

They can also exert more pressure for policies that help their properties. In California, however, there’s growing support for environmental justice, or ensuring that rules treat lower-income communities equitably.

There aren’t clear guidelines yet about whom and how much governments should help, Mach said.

"Those are all the sorts of questions that in many ways are that frontier we’re looking at with just about no experience to date," Mach said.

Residents assert rights

The stakes for Del Mar are high. It has 4,200 residents and 3 million visitors annually. Locals and visitors surf, ride boogie boards and relax on the sand.

Del Mar is feeling pressure from some residents with multimillion-dollar homes. They spoke out at a recent meeting held with North Beach residents, those in the area likely to be affected soonest by sea-level rise and floods from a nearby river.

"The beach community has to stand together," said Neal Gobar, a resident since 1977. "I’m unfortunately very pessimistic about being able to save the beach" from erosion.

He conceded his view is based on protecting his home over saving the beach.

"If I lived up on top of the hill, I’d say forget the beach community, let the ocean take that away, we’ll have our beach," he said. "That’s what nature does, and we’re fighting nature. We in the beach community, what’s the saying? We all have to hang together or we’ll hang separately."

City Councilman Dwight Worden told Gobar, "That’s why we’re here. You guys do matter."

Del Mar’s median home price is $1.3 million. In what’s known as the "beach colony" section along the water, recent sales have landed in the $4 million range. Several new listings top $10 million.

Not all are mansions. The main Fletcher house is one story with three bedrooms and 3 ½ bathrooms. It’s decorated in a low-key beach theme, with numerous black-and-white family photos. Behind the house there’s a two-bedroom guest cottage built in the 1950s, an apartment over a garage added in the 1960s, and a tennis court and pool.

Fletcher’s grandfather paid less than $50,000 for more than 10 acres in 1946. The median home price in the area where the Fletchers now live is $3.6 million, according to realtor.com.

Kim Fletcher doesn’t think he should be asked to sacrifice his home to keep the walkable sand.

"It’s not cost-effective to just tear down the sea walls and let the houses be washed away by the next big storm that comes along," he said.

With jets of white hair, he sat in an outdoor beach chair wearing khaki shorts, a blue T-shirt and a navy down vest. "That is just a continuing problem. You might as well stop [the ocean] someplace. If you just let it go a little further in, then you’re just going to be continually eating inland."

Trains travel on bluffs

The region faces other sea-level-rise problems. Del Mar’s beachside bluffs are eroding. Train tracks run along those cliffs. The transit district that operates the tracks is looking at possibilities for relocating the rail line. The main options are digging tunnels through the city or under the Interstate 5 freeway by 2050. It would cost $1.4 billion, an estimate in 2014 dollars.

More than 50 trains use the tracks daily. Amtrak runs trains from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. A popular local "Coaster" line stops in beach cities and in downtown San Diego.

The tracks also support international commerce. Burlington North Santa Fe runs three nightly trains that carry new automobiles brought in from Asia to the Port of San Diego. Those go east to San Bernardino, where they are offloaded and moved all over the country.

Work to stabilize the bluffs through 2037 is estimated to cost $83 million, said Kimy Wall, spokeswoman for the North County Transit District.

The draft report from Del Mar’s Sea Level Rise Committee said that it could come down to protecting the bluffs or the walkable beach.

"Bluffs will erode and impact the [Amtrak] railroad," as well as nearby neighborhoods, it said. "If the railroad were to be armored with a sea wall, little to no beach will exist."

No perfect option

The city will need to look at relocating those facilities that can be, like the fire department, Gaasterland said. The other option is dikes, but that would put pressure on other places where the water will escape.

Del Mar’s Sea Level Rise Committee hopes to produce recommendations for a decade or more out. The City Council will decide whether to take action, said City Manager Scott Huth.

Many who live at the beach favor adding sand. That is costly, and it doesn’t last. Fletcher, who also is on the Sea Level Rise Committee, said that a dozen years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers dumped sand up to the top of his sea wall.

Kim Fletcher. Photo credit: Anne C. Mulkern/E&E News
Kim Fletcher, 89, has seen the beach shrink in Del Mar. | Anne C. Mulkern/E&E News

"It went out within a couple of years," Fletcher said.

The biggest point of tension could be the sea walls and other structures for protecting coastal homes, Gaasterland said. Others in the city might see the walls as an issue if they realize they’ll contribute to losing the beach, she said.

Meanwhile, some residents urge adding more walls.

Resident Laura DeMarco, who attended the meeting with North Beach residents, asked whether the city could require people to add sea walls. Gaps in those pose risks, she said. Members of the City Council attending the meeting said they could require it but so far have not done so.

The price tag for home armor is high. Two sea walls that were just replaced, located about a block south of the Fletchers’ home, cost each homeowner $215,000, said Walt Crampton, an engineer whose company erects the walls. The walls cost $4,300 per linear foot.

"I’ve never had a client that was excited to write a check for a couple hundred thousand dollars for a wall," Crampton said. "It’s the lesser of two evils."

Sea walls are crucial for a part of Del Mar east of the beachfront houses, he said. It sits at a lower elevation, in a kind of bowl. In 1983, when a major storm hit, that part of the city was underwater. Without the walls, about 60 to 80 homes are at high risk, Crampton said.

Fears of ‘managed retreat’

City Council members presented potential options for dealing with sea-level rise at the recent meeting with coastal residents. Fixes included everything from sea walls to offshore islands, to slow waves. The presentation also referenced managed retreat, or taking down shoreline structures and letting the beach move east naturally.

DeMarco bristled at the idea of offshore islands, which could affect surfing. But she was aghast at the mention of managed retreat.

"If you look at Del Mar oceanfront per square foot, it’s probably the most valuable land in California," she said. "People have made an economic investment, and the way that plan is written, that would conceivably be wiped away. That’s the reason why [managed retreat] should be a last resort.

"If you look at the tax revenues in Del Mar, a lot of it comes from the beach colony. It has the highest property values and the highest source of property tax," DeMarco added. "The city should prioritize using some of that monies to prioritize protecting our property values and that [tax] revenue."

Gaasterland, chair the Sea Level Rise Committee, said the Del Mar community will need to look at how much income it gets from property taxes by beachfront residents, compared with sales taxes, parking fees, hotel taxes and other incomes from visitors who use the beaches. If the usable beach sands disappear, she said, that money could go away.

Huth, the city manager, said so far there hasn’t been local pushback on walls. "I don’t see that there’s going to be a swell of recommendations that are going to look toward not replacing the sea walls that are coming up right now."

The sea-level-rise report stands by a key goal: to preserve "a walkable beach for as long as possible for recreational use, economic benefit, and to reduce flooding."

Gaasterland said that while the decisions are difficult, Del Mar can offer guidance to other cities.

"Del Mar as a community will lead the way for other communities nationwide how to think through and balance the array of options related to sea-level rise," she said.