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County to Boost Red-Tag Criteria for Homes atop Isla Vista Cliffs

Owners Hear New Bluff-to-Building-Foundation Setback Proposals

The cliff's edge is coming perilously close to apartments on Del Playa in Isla Vista, rented to students for the most part, and the County of Santa Barbara met with owners to discuss new setback rules. | Credit: Paul Wellman File

The bluffs off Isla Vista are retreating at a rate of up to 20 inches a year, leaving dozens of homes lining Del Playa Drive in danger, some more so than others. A balcony collapsed and a 20-foot caisson toppled at two Del Playa properties in recent years; fortunately, no one was injured. But Santa Barbara County is devising stricter rules to require property owners to act sooner rather than later in creating contingency plans for inevitable cliff collapses. On Tuesday, the county’s Planning and Development division met with Isla Vista property owners to receive feedback on the plan — and were met with visible displeasure.

Santa Barbara County Building and Safety manager Massoud Abolhoda and planning administrator Steve Mason presented the proposed changes to the approximately 30 property owners in attendance, explaining how the county plans to implement the new policies. “The bluff erosion in Isla Vista has been more prominent than anywhere else,” Abolhoda said.“[Cliff] failure can be up to eight feet wide … what we are worried about, what we are trying to achieve, is to make sure that the building is either cut back or has been somehow [fixed] before an event, [before] a big chunk of block can come down.”

The county would issue a notice to vacate a property when the “face of foundation” comes within 10 feet of the “bluff face,” the documents presented read. When the distance is 20 feet, the property owner would be required to hire a geotechnical engineer to perform a site-specific study to establish the “maximum collapse width for a single event.”

Should the distance between bluff and building become 15 feet, and the property owner has failed to conduct the study, a warning is given. If no study ensues and the distance shortens to 10 feet, the owner will be issued the notice to vacate. Property owners have already had to remove portions of buildings or decks, and future requirements would depend on whether the property had a deep or shallow foundation, according to the proposed rules.

The purpose of the new requirements was to establish concrete steps for property owners to take before a cliff collapse happens, Abolhoda reiterated during the meeting. He emphasized this is not a finalized policy; rather, the goal of Tuesday’s meeting was to receive feedback from the property owners.

Several property owners looked displeased with the proposed changes, and others voiced their opposition. One owner asked why the county couldn’t put up seawalls to fix the problem. Another asked why the county added caissons recently to support the beach staircase at Camino Pescadero Park, but property owners couldn’t do the same. A few pointed out the limited housing available in Santa Barbara County, noting that the properties along the Isla Vista cliffs house hundreds of students.

One landlord who owned dozens of apartment buildings along Del Playa, James Gelb, has already cut his losses and sold the properties. They were swiftly snapped up, nonetheless. New owners Richard Doherty and Grant Denham were in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.

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