The future of Goleta Beach Park — whether it will continue to be a beach and a park, or possibly just one of the two — will rest with the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, March 18, when supporters on both sides of the issue are expected to turn out in droves to plead their cases. The supervisors, whose decision will be passed on to the California Coastal Commission, have seven options before them: a “managed retreat” scheme, five alternatives, and the ability to combine aspects from those six plans.
The fate of the highly popular park also looms large in the race between incumbent Janet Wolf and Goleta City councilmember Roger Aceves for the supervisor’s seat for the 2nd District, which includes the beach. The debate over how to deal with the park — which is in the county’s purview and is frequented by 1.5 million visitors per year — has also come to include the City of Goleta, which has long been vocal about its opposition to the environmental-review-designated plan and its support instead for the second of five alternatives that could be implemented.
This week saw the City’s voice heard even louder. On Wednesday, staff and councilmembers spoke at a Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce roundtable on the issue, and on Friday sent a letter to the board asking them to postpone their decision until more public input is provided and threatening to sue the county if, what they say are the proper protocols, aren’t taken.
In its letter, written by city attorney Tim Giles, the city alleged that the county is violating state law by not including a staff recommendation to the board on which project to choose, not providing an option to certify the project’s environmental impact report (EIR), and by handing off their decision directly to the Coastal Commission. Further, the letter stated, the county hasn’t provided adequate opportunities for public input. Should the board adhere to county staff’s recommendations, “the city will be forced to consider its legal options to challenge the board’s actions, including recovery of legal fees,” the letter stated.
Those claims are baseless, said Dianne Black, the assistant director of the county’s Planning and Development department. In the staff report on the upcoming hearing, staff stated that they recommend handing off their decision to the Coastal Commission, then back to the Planning Commission and EIR certification given that the Coastal Commission has the “ultimate authority” and as such “it would be premature and inefficient to complete the local permit process first.”
Black explained that whatever option the supervisors choose will be presented to the Coastal Commission; if that commission signs off on the board’s decision, it will head back to the county Planning Commission for approval, which will be final unless it is appealed to the supervisors or the Coastal Commission. Further, Black said, the county has offered ample opportunities for public comment, including previous board hearings, a public workshop, and a public hearing. According to the county, more than 600 pieces of commentary were received during the environmental report’s comment period last summer. The county could face fines from the Coastal Commission if they don’t pick a project.
Wonky procedural elements aside, Tuesday’s meeting will revolve around one main argument: to keep the rock revetments or not to keep them. Although possible compromises lie in some of the alternatives available, many in the environmental community, lead by the Surfrider Foundation and the Environmental Defense Center, support removing them — in the process known as “managed retreat” — and many others, lead by the group Friends of Goleta Beach and supported by the City of Goleta and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, advocate letting them stay. The environmentalists claim that the rocks — some were installed legally, some illegally, and some with now-expired emergency permits — will eventually mean a loss of the sandy beach and make the park into a permanent bluff. Those in support of the rocks, otherwise known as seawalls, claim — and point to the early-March storm as an example — that the rocks protect the park from washing away and widen the beach, not narrow it.
Ed da le Torre, of Friends of Goleta Beach, has said repeatedly that his mantra is “protection, protection, protection.” De la Torre, a lifelong Goleta resident, said the rocks are doing their job. “Why don’t you go with what you’ve got?” he said. “Let’s go with what works.”
Also at issue are the potential repercussions to other aspects of the beach-park. Under the EIR-recommended rock-removing “managed retreat” plan, some acres of lawn and about 100 parking spots would be lost (although possibly moved elsewhere), gas and water lines would be relocated (at the utility companies’ expense), and the bike path up to UCSB would also be moved. Under the second alternative, which Friends of Goleta Beach and the City of Goleta support, the rocks would be retained for 20 years, meaning no loss of parking or the need for relocating the utility lines and bike path; during the 20 years, other management plans would be studied.
The “managed retreat” plan is projected to cost more than $4 million, while the second alternative, for test and final phases, could cost from $11 million to $15 million. Other plans cost as little as nothing and as much as $22 million. Black said where the county would get the money remains undetermined.
Other ideas on the table include installing a cobble berm around the sewer vault near Beachside Cafe, installing a cobble berm along the shoreline to deflect waves’ energy, and planting Canary Island date palm trees along the park’s edge; Friends of Goleta Beach purchased 12 of the trees years ago but were told by the county not to install them. There is also talk of encouraging regrowth of the kelp forest — wiped out decades ago — to help minimize waves’ impact. Sand replenishment has also been suggested. Two of the alternatives involve nothing more than getting permits to either remove or retain about 1,200 feet of the rocks.
Dave Revell, a coastal geomorphologist who has studied Goleta Beach for 11 years and is under contract with the county, said that there are parts of each plan that have “merit” but that seawalls ultimately result in loss of habitat and recreational space and end up costing a lot of money in upkeep. “With any kind of structure, the beach will be different,” he said. “Without any structures, the beaches will stay the same.” He continued, saying, “We have all built a sandcastle and moat to try to hold back the ocean. We have all failed.”
Aceves said he sees it differently, pointing to the March storm as an example of the rocks’ ability to protect the park. “You could see that the rock revetments worked,” he said. “We should be going to the Coastal Commission and asking to make the rock revetments permanent. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, you don’t have to spend a lot of time.” Aceves added that he also supports the second alternative as well as the idea of postponing the decision to allow for more public input. He, along with his Goleta City Council colleagues Jim Farr and Michael Bennett, will attend Tuesday’s meeting; the afternoon session of the council meeting has been canceled.
Wolf, elected in 2006 and set to face Aceves in the June 3 primary, called the claims about lack of public outreach “a red herring.” She didn’t say what her decision on Tuesday will be but said the EIR speaks for itself. “As we’ve seen from the EIR, it has informed us on what might happen if those rocks are removed,” she said. “The EIR informs my decision-making. I think it’s clear that there are significant Class I impacts if the rocks are removed.” The supervisors’ Goleta Beach discussion is set for 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday at 105 East Anapamu Street in Santa Barbara.