'Retreat' Is Not An Option As A California Beach Town Plans For Rising Seas

Dec 4, 2018
Originally published on December 6, 2018 9:48 pm

About 150 steps from John Imperato's Southern California home, pavement gives way to an ever-shrinking stretch of soft sand.

Imperato lives in Del Mar, a small, affluent town just north of San Diego. He spent his life savings to live here. He wanted to raise his son like he grew up, withing walking distance of the sea.

Del Mar is a picturesque place; its name means "of the sea," in Spanish.

That's becoming increasingly true.

Del Mar is one of countless coastal communities in California and across the U.S. that is seeing the impacts of climate change and preparing for worse to come.

By midcentury, tens of millions of U.S. homes and billions of dollars of property are likely to be destroyed or made unusable by increased flooding from rising seas and storms, according to a recent climate report by the U.S. government.

"Sea level rise and storm surge could completely erode two-thirds of southern California beaches by 2100," the report warns.

That leaves residents of seaside towns like Del Mar with an alarming choice: stay and fight those impacts, or turn and leave.

Del Mar has been having that discussion for years. The city is a national leader in that regard. But it also provides a good example of just how difficult and precarious even planning for sea level rise can be.

"The feel-good here is gone," Imperato says, standing outside of his home. "I thought they were going to bury me here, but if someone offered [to buy my house], I'd take it. I'd walk away."

'When the sea walls go, we go'

In 2015, Del Mar created a committee, consisting primarily of residents, to help identify the city's biggest vulnerabilities to increased flooding and to come up with a plan on how best to address them.

They got grants from the state's coastal commission and worked with paid consultants.

The findings were grim.

Del Mar's walkable beach — a huge draw for the town's 3 million annual visitors — could disappear by 2050.

Sea levels here are projected to rise 1 to 2 feet by 2050, and as much as 5 1/2 by 2100, according to scientific projections used by the city.

The homes in Imperato's low-lying neighborhood faced a double whammy.

Beach erosion and sea level rise are likely to increase flooding during high-tide events and storms, threatening to overwhelm a long line of private sea walls that line the beach.

"When those sea walls go, we go," Imperato, who served on the committee, says.

Increased precipitation from storm events, another expected result of climate change, may also bring more river flooding. The mouth of the San Dieguito River sits just north of Imperato's neighborhood.

Knowing the risks, a few years ago, the city moved into the next phase of planning: how to adapt.

There are three broad adaptation strategies communities should look at, according to guidance policies provided by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency tasked with oversight of California's coasts.

The first is protection — the creation of of sea walls or other armoring to defend coastal developments.

The second is accommodation — modifying buildings or developments to accommodate increased flooding. That includes changing zoning or elevating structures.

The final option is the one nobody wants — an option that homeowners like Imperato describe as "the kiss of death."

Retreat.

'Not feasible here in Del Mar'

Retreating from sea level rise can take different forms. It can mean changing zoning to limit construction in flood-prone areas. It can also mean removing or relocating development from vulnerable areas, using buyout programs or transferring property rights.

Some communities in California are embracing the idea.

At first, Del Mar was looking at it, too.

The blowback, though, was almost immediate. Realtors' groups spoke out against the plan. Homeowners were hysterical.

"What we learned from our community is that even the mere discussion of managed retreat, in the minds of some, completely devalues their property," says Amanda Lee, Del Mar's senior city planner.

The concern was that if the city formalized a plan that included retreat, it would be harder for property owners to get loans or sell their land.

Hearing those concerns, "we started crossing out managed retreat and replacing it with other words like 'not feasible here in Del Mar'," says Terry Gaasterland, who chaired the city's Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee.

The city council even went as far as to pass a resolution banning future city councils from planning for retreat.

There were practical reasons for the decision, Gaasterland says. The median home value in Del Mar is about $2.5 million, according to the real estate market app Zillow.

One oceanfront house in Imperato's neighborhood is listed for sale for $24 million.

"In Del Mar, market value of all the properties in the managed retreat zone is estimated at $1.5 billion," Gaasterland says. "Who's going to pay for that? Certainly not the city of Del Mar."

Another problem is the topography of the area. There are bluffs to the north and south of Del Mar, making relocation of residents nearly impossible.

Instead, the town approved a plan that included strategies like sand replenishment for its beaches and dredging of the San Dieguito River to lessen the chance of flooding.

That plan was sent to the state's coastal commission, where it's waiting for review.

The California Coastal Commission, for its part, isn't penalizing cities that don't embrace the idea of managed retreat. Madeline Cavalieri, a manager with the commission, says there's no one-size-fits-all solution for dealing with sea level rise; different cities need to consider a combination of different strategies.

The idea, though, is to prepare.

"Over the past however many years, people have thought, 'Well I'm purchasing a home, I'm buying a property, this property is going to be here forever.' We now understand with sea level rise that there are going to be locations where we can no longer count on the fact that house is going to be there in perpetuity," she says.

End of the line

Homeowners like Imperato are not denying that sea level rise is happening.

He and others in Del Mar will tell you that they've seen the beach shrink and the high tide creep ever higher. But for many, the more devastating effects still seem far away.

"We're not worried about the actual hazard because you can accept Mother Nature, and that may happen a hundred years from now," Imperato says, "What we're afraid of is the regulations that are going to affect us today or tomorrow."

Imperato, like many homeowners in Del Mar, was happy that the city said no to managed retreat, but he's still frustrated that it was considered in the first place. He believes damage to property values has already been done and says he has told a realtor to "pocket list" his house.

"Pocket listing is you want to sell your house, but you don't want to put a sign up with everyone else because then it's a race to the bottom," he says.

Dwight Worden, a city councilman who serves as Del Mar's mayor, is sympathetic to those concerns but says the city needed to consider managed retreat.

"If you pretend that you did a scientific study of risks and options in your community, but you didn't study retreat, your study has no credibility," he says. "It needs to be studied."

Worden agrees that in Del Mar, managed retreat does not make sense. He doesn't believe it's feasible. But he's also realistic about the challenge sea level rise presents.

"At some point you're left with two options. You either organize a retreat, or you do what's called evacuation and you call FEMA because you're flooded out," he says. "We realize that's the end of the line. But we want to try Plan A. And if Plan A doesn't work, we think there may be a Plan B. We want to do everything else we can first."

In other words, he says, the city would rather hold off the water as long as it can.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

By mid-century, flooding from rising seas and storms is likely to destroy or at least make unusable billions of dollars' worth of property and tens of millions of U.S. homes. This is according to the latest National Climate Assessment. Coastal communities around the country are preparing for those threats, but as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, there are challenges to even having this discussion.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's about 150 steps from John Imperato's home to the Pacific Ocean.

JOHN IMPERATO: Yeah, if the surf's good, it's a little fewer up here, you know.

ROTT: (Laughter).

Imperato lives with his son in Del Mar, Calif., just north of San Diego. It's an affluent tourist town, popular for its sunny beaches and high-priced boutiques. Imperato says he spent his life savings to live here.

IMPERATO: In Del Mar, you get a half a house for about $1.7 million. This is a duplex.

ROTT: OK.

Imperato lives in one of the town's more expensive and most vulnerable neighborhoods - a low-lying beachside area near the mouth of the San Dieguito River. A house not far away is currently listed at $19 million. That house, like the rest of the oceanfront properties here, has a concrete wall on its beach side, separating home from sea. And at high tide, increasingly, that's all the separation there is.

IMPERATO: When these seawalls go, we go.

ROTT: The ocean by San Diego has risen nearly 10 inches in the last century. Scientists project the water will climb in Del Mar an additional 1 to 2 feet by 2050. By the turn of the century, the sea here could rise as much as 5 1/2 feet. Imperato says he sees the change. That's partly why he's trying to get out.

IMPERATO: I have my place pocket-listed. Do you know what a pocket listing is?

ROTT: No, I have no idea.

IMPERATO: Pocket listing is you want to sell your house, but you don't want to put a sign up with everyone else because then it's a race to the bottom.

ROTT: So instead, you tell a realtor to hawk it for you on the sly. Imperato says a lot of his neighbors are doing the same thing. But the chief reason isn't the physical threat of flooding. Imperato believes that's still decades away. And he says he can live with that risk...

IMPERATO: Because you can accept Mother Nature.

ROTT: What's harder to accept is what he sees as a more immediate threat - plans for that future, impacting his property value now.

IMPERATO: It's a kiss of death.

ROTT: Del Mar is one of dozens of communities in California planning for sea level rise under the guidance of the state's coastal commission. One of the options the state wants towns to consider is something called managed retreat, which essentially means ceding ground to rising seas. Some communities on California's coasts are embracing this strategy. When Del Mar looked at it, though, hysteria followed.

AMANDA LEE: What we learned from our community is that even the mere discussion of managed retreat, in the minds of some, completely devalues their property.

ROTT: Amanda Lee is the city senior planner. She says realtor groups immediately spoke out against the plan. Homeowners did the same. They argued that nobody would want to buy or lend in a place that has a formalized plan that includes retreat. So eventually, the city decided to not make managed retreat part of the adaptation plan they sent to the coastal commission.

LEE: So the concept is not to impact people before we actually see the changes realized in the environment.

ROTT: City Councilwoman Terry Gaasterland supports that decision. She was on the city's Sea Level Rise Committee.

TERRY GAASTERLAND: Sometimes it takes that first major event to happen before people are ready to really think about it.

ROTT: You don't want to do something that's going to affect you now, but...

GAASTERLAND: Plus...

ROTT: ...That's the inherent problem in climate change, right?

GAASTERLAND: OK, I'm going to push back at you. So we've been focusing a lot on managed retreat as we've been discussing this because that's kind of the topic at hand. However, we have a list of 25 adaptation tools that do not include managed retreat that we need to do first.

ROTT: She points to sand replenishment for beaches, seawall maintenance and river dredging, among others. All, she says, are cheaper than buying people out of their homes.

GAASTERLAND: So, in Del Mar, market value of all the properties in the managed retreat zone is estimated at $1.5 billion.

ROTT: Who, she asks, is going to pay for that? Dwight Worden served as Del Mar's mayor during much of that planning process. Sitting outside a roadside cafe on a hot, sunny day, he says managed retreat just does not make sense in Del Mar. But he's also realistic.

DWIGHT WORDEN: At some point, you're left with two options. You either organize a retreat, or you do what's called evacuation. And you call FEMA because you're flooded out. And what we're saying is, we realize that's the end of the line. But we want to try plan A. And if plan A doesn't work, we think there may be a Plan B.

ROTT: And on down the line. Worden says there's no easy answer, not here or anywhere else, dealing with the effects of sea level rise. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Del Mar, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.