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Santa Cruz County’s Plan For Sea Level Rise Meets Resistance

Erika Mahoney
Homes on Beach Drive in Rio del Mar sit right on the beach. Santa Cruz County planners are currently updating their plan that guides coastal development while taking sea level rise into account.

The rate of sea level rise is accelerating. Communities along the California coast are preparing for that eventuality. In Santa Cruz County, some are pushing back against the plans.  

On a sunny day in Rio del Mar, Ben Strock strolls down a walk path that sits between a row of homes and a sandy beach. He’s the founder of Strock Real Estate in Aptos.

In the last year and a half, Strock says he’s sold three homes along Beach Drive in Rio del Mar.

“The biggest topic of conversation is obviously sea level rise in this area,” Strock said. “When people start seeing homes that are this close to the water and have potential impact from the tides coming up to the homes, they start questioning the purchase.”

Credit Erika Mahoney
Ben Strock is a local realtor. His business focuses on coastal homes in Santa Cruz County. Strock says practically every home buyer brings up sea level rise.

As a result, Strock says the home prices have been dropping.  

They used to go for over $2 million. In the last year and a half, we sold them ranging from $1.6 to $2.25. And $2.25 was the higher range,” Strock said.

Rio del Mar is just one of many communities in Santa Cruz County that’s perched on the coastline.

Many Communities Sit On The Coast

About 5 miles up the coast, Gary Griggs sits on a seawall that protects a row of colorful homes in Capitola. Griggs, a professor of Earth Science at UC Santa Cruz, studies sea level rise.

Gary Griggs, a professor of Earth Science at UC Santa Cruz, near the beach in Capitola. Griggs says in the next century, the condos behind him could be underwater.

Depending on greenhouse gas emission rates, he says our oceans could be anywhere from three to six feet higher, or worse, by the next century.

Two things are conspiring to raise sea level. As the earth warms, ocean water warms and expands, just like in your water heater. So that's a big driver. And ice melts,” Griggs said.

NASA recently released satellite images of widespread melting Antarctica. In early February, it was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit there, a record. The before and after pictures highlight the difference in snowpack on Eagle Island, the northern tip of Antarctica.

Credit NASA
NASA recently shared these before and after images of Eagle Island in Antarctica. They illustrate the effects of a prolonged warm spell.

Griggs says globally, seas would rise around 190 feet if all of Antarctica melted.

“And now, we’ve built most of the world's great cities, big cities… New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami right at sea level. And those cities hold hundreds of millions of people. So now we've got this dilemma. What are we going to do?"

Griggs says one option is denial. Another is seawalls, or armor. And he says about 25 percent of Santa Cruz County is protected by some type of shoreline armoring. But Griggs says seawalls are not a long-term solution and can shrink beaches, limiting public access.

“Can we build houseboats or floating cities? I don't think that's going to happen,” Griggs said. “The one that nobody wants to mention is called managed retreat.”

Managed retreat involves moving structures away from the coastline.

“And I think one of the challenges we have is nobody wants to leave without being compensated,” said Griggs.

The California Coastal Commission says for most areas, the danger isn’t immediate. But the agency says it’s important to plan now. Local Coastal Programs are one planning tool for local governments. Called LCPs for short, they’re basically a roadmap to guide coastal development in partnership with the Coastal Commission.

Santa Cruz County Prepares For Rising Seas

Santa Cruz County is updating parts of their LCP and general plan to prepare for sea level rise and climate change. County staff describe their approach as an “engage, accept and get ready” one.

David Carlson, a resource planner with the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, says the updates are required by state law. He says it’s been a long process, over five years.

Credit Erika Mahoney
Santa Cruz County planners are updating parts of their LCP/general plan. The proposed changes are complex and comprise about 90 pages.

“What everybody is focusing on is the section that addresses coastal bluffs and beaches,” he said.

Carlson says there are about 1,100 properties located on coastal bluffs and beaches in unincorporated Santa Cruz County. He says about 90 percent are either second homes or vacation rentals. Depending on their location, the county is proposing different guidelines: a “managed retreat” strategy in some areas, and allowing development in others as a tradeoff.

“We feel like it's an appropriate compromise at this point in time. And as we see what actually happens with sea level rise in the future, further amendments to our plan could be made,” Carlson said while noting the plan has a 20-year horizon.

For certain areas, like homes located on beaches or lagoons, the proposals includes restrictions on remodels. While there are no limits on small projects, only one major remodel would be allowed for a home's lifetime. A “major remodel” is defined as 50% or more of the main structural components.

That kind of project would trigger new elevation requirements of at least three feet to account for sea level rise.

Many of the houses along the coast were originally constructed at beach level. And when substantial improvement to those homes is proposed, then that requirement for elevation kicks in,” Carlson said.

For homes located on coastal bluffs, there’s a setback requirement. The minimum is 25 feet, but it would likely be more depending on future erosion estimates. The county would apply a 75 year projection.  

So there's a tradeoff there for properties on the coastal bluff. It's not so much the additional expense of setting back from the coastal bluff. It's a matter of do you have enough property to achieve the proper setback?” Carlson said.

The county’s proposals include mitigation fees for any protection structures, like seawalls. The county would also cement their practice of requiring statements on property deeds that acknowledge the risks of living in a hazardous area. The statements put homeowners on notice that if a home is destroyed or badly damaged by a natural cause, the county may need to remove the structure, at the homeowner’s expense.

“The county's interest is that all property owners, existing and future property owners, are well aware of the potential coastal hazards that could affect that property now and in the future,” Carlson said.

What If Tides Are Coming Toward Your Home?

Cove Britton, an architect who specializes in coastal homes, is unhappy with the proposals. He formed the Pacific Coast Protection Association to stop them. 

“It’s very complex, what’s being presented. But it is essentially a very simple connect at the end… that people are being required to abdicate their right to rebuild and maintain their homes,” Britton said.

Britton is president of Matson Britton Architects. He says for some families, the prospect of losing the financial security of these seaside homes is terrifying.

“These proposals will probably result in about a billion dollars’ worth of property value loss in this county,” Britton said inside his architecture studio in Santa Cruz.

Credit Erika Mahoney
Cove Britton, president of Matson Britton Architects, holds a picture that illustrates the homes he's worked on in Santa Cruz County. Britton has been outspoken against the county's proposed LCP/general plan changes.

Britton believes there should be some kind of national solution to these issues.

“How do we deal with climate change and people's homes that are threatened by climate change? And how do we do we recompense them when their home needs to be removed? Do we not recompense them? These are basic concepts that are affecting everybody. This is just an example of the issue for coastal homeowners,” Britton said.

The Coastal Commission has a different view. It says solutions will need to be local because California’s geology varies. One thing’s certain, tough decisions lie ahead.

Santa Cruz County planners will host an informational meeting about their proposals on March 2nd at Live Oak Elementary School. The meeting begins at 7pm.

Then, Santa Cruz County Supervisors will vote on the plan on March 10 before it heads to the Coastal Commission.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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