Dodging a contentious political debate that has raged for years, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to keep the status quo, and not pursue any project to address long-term erosion problems at Goleta Beach County Park.
The supervisors said the significant impacts from the proposed project were unacceptable, and they will pitch a "no-project alternative" to the California Coastal Commission in a Coastal Development Permit application they will forward to the state panel.
The board didn't certify the environmental documents for the project, and offered no comments about what will happen if the Coastal Commission rejects keeping the rock revetments that have been in place since 2005.
The controversial project, known as Goleta Beach 2.0, would remove 107 parking spaces from the west end of the park, relocate utility lines, and remove all the rock revetments, which were installed with emergency permits that have since expired.
The environmental documents also analyzed several alternatives, and critics of the so-called “managed retreat” project urged the county to take a different approach to control erosion at the popular county park.
City of Goleta leaders, the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, and a community group called Friends of Goleta Beach have all criticized the proposed project, worried that the park will be completely washed away by big storms without the rocks or another form of protection.
On the other side, the Environmental Defense Center and other organizations advocated for a new hybrid version of the project.
Rock revetments and seawalls cause significant long-term impacts, EDC environmental analyst Brian Trautwein said.
The erosion could reach the seawall and then the beach would disappear, he said. He advocated a “compromise plan” with a cobble berm replacing the rocks. It would be cheaper and safer, he argued.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the five supervisors were tasked with picking a project to present to the Coastal Commission, which has demanded a long-term strategy for dealing with erosion at the beach.
County staff members said the shoreline is not in a long-term retreat at Goleta Beach, but fluctuates over time. The rock revetments are placed relatively high on the beach so stay buried most of the time.
The recent storms exposed some of them, but they haven’t been exposed in at least eight years before that, planner Alex Tuttle said.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf surprised a lot of people when she made the motion to pursue the no-project alternative and keep the 1,200 feet of rock revetment along the park area.
There has been “too much rhetoric, political theater, legal threats and personal threats” in the debate over the project, Wolf said.
“The debate over what to do about Goleta Beach has consumed an inordinate amount of time, money, environmental studies, and peace of mind among many people over the past dozen years or so,” she said, reading a prepared statement from the dais.
In the debate, people have become concerned that they won’t be able to enjoy the park in the future, and her goal Tuesday was to bring some closure to “at least this phase of study and debate,” she said.
The no-project alternative will be sent to the Coastal Commission for review, which could take more than a year.
Wolf said the final EIR influenced her decision on the project.
Some impacts the county feared – such as starving down-coast beaches of sand or having the beach narrow over time – have not happened, and aren’t projected to happen until at least 2050, she said.
Wolf said the project’s significant, unavoidable impacts are “simply unacceptable to me.”
Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr quickly seconded the motion. The board needs to do what is best for its county residents, and what’s best financially, which is why the no-project option is a winner, she said.
There were two hours of public comment during Tuesday’s hearing, but the supervisors said very little, except to agree with Wolf’s points.
While there are experts on both sides of the debate, the supervisors ultimately need to rely on their own judgment, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said. The no-project plan makes the most sense, he said.
Most of the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting emphasized a project to protect the lawn area of the park, while others wanted to remove the rocks and let the beach expand inland.
The beach isn’t in danger of disappearing now, but the park needs protecting because it’s unnatural, said Jim Childress, a retired UCSB oceanography professor. The scientific debate comes from citing science that isn’t relevant, he added.
Speakers pointed to the staff presentation and said the rocks are not harmful to the beach now, and the park would essentially wash away if they were removed.
Dave Hardy, owner of the Beachside Bar & Café, said the rocks worked perfectly in the recent storms that flooded his restaurant and damaged the pier. The rocks protected the building’s foundation, though the water was high enough to come over the top of the wall.
“What’s a couple of windows and carpet?” he said.
Goleta city leaders came out in force, asking the supervisors to send the project to the Planning Commission before the Coastal Commission. Mayor Michael Bennett and the City Council support keeping the rocks to protect the park, which is heavily used by Goleta Valley residents.
Goleta’s city manager, neighborhood services and public-safety director, city attorney, planning manager, public information officer and four council members attended Tuesday’s meeting.
City Manager Dan Singer posed a question to the board: If it’s acceptable to have rocks protect the restaurant and other infrastructure, why not to protect the park’s lawn area?
County staff members said it is “perfectly legally adequate” to send the project to the Coastal Commission before certifying the final environmental impact report. The project will come back to the county Planning Commission if it’s approved, they said.
The county used the same process for the permeable pier project proposal, which was rejected by the commission in 2009.
Goleta City Attorney Tim Giles and Mayor Michael Bennett reiterated the city’s threat of legal action if the county moves forward without certifying the EIR, which they believe violates the California Environmental Quality Act.
Second District Supervisor Salud Carbajal told Giles the county’s attorneys looked over the letter and “disagree with you greatly.”