Despite controversy, Pacifica City Council narrowly approves plan to combat sea level rise

An ongoing debate over how to deal with sea level rise in Pacifica reached a vote among city council, approving an adaptation plan despite numerous homeowners pleading their cases to delay approval.

Council members voted 3-2 in favor of moving forward and ultimately submit the plan to the California Coastal Commission for approval.

The fiery meeting Monday lasted more than four hours as Pacifica residents, business owners and government officials voiced their concerns over some strategies and raised questions about how the plan is written. Property values, insurance coverage, future development, coastal erosion and funding were the main themes discussed among the community.

The California Coastal Commission estimates the ocean will rise three to seven feet over the next century. It’s asking all 60+ California coastal cities update their local coastal plans. The last time Pacifica’s was updated was in 1980. 

In each plan, cities are to consider several adaptation strategies to deal with rising waters, which includes adding barriers and armoring the coast or adding sand to beaches. However, a more controversial strategy is called managed retreat, which means moving homes and businesses located in the hazard zone, west of Highway 1, to allow nature to do what it wants and maintain the beach.

“This is a war with the sea,” one resident said. “We may win. We may lose. But we should never give up the ground unnecessarily.”

After a lengthy presentation by the associate city planning director about Pacifica’s final draft, council members were able to ask questions before nearly 21 community members spoke for three minutes each.

“What we need to have is a plan in the worst case scenario so we’re not all stampeding to get out when the disaster happens,” one speaker said. “We need to plan for it. We need to pass this plan now.”

However, other neighbors disagreed and were concerned the plan as written would threaten his home or making future renovations.

“This just cannot go forward,” homeowner Jeff Guillet said. “It’s not ready.”

While the city maintains managed retreat is not a recommended fix, just the mention and consideration, even decades from now, has some property owners worried primarily about home values.

Last month, 2 Investigates first reported the concerns and questioned both the California Coastal Commission and the Pacifica City Manager, Kevin Woodhouse.

“We are protecting the public – humans and properties,” Woodhouse explained. “We are being proactive about addressing climate change and sea level rise.”

Some council members, the city of San Francisco and other special interest groups felt the final draft had flaws or lacked clarity. While two council members expressed concerns, others felt it was important to move forward fearing loss of potential grants and funding for various strategies and armoring of the coast.

“If we’re not shovel ready and we can’t check that box that says do you have a plan, we’re not going to be first in line for those monies,” Councilwoman Deirdre Martin said.

In a narrow vote, the 3-2 passage pushes all strategy considerations and proposals forward. Managed retreat is a potential future option but is not recommended in the near-term. The sea level rise adaptation plan will go to the Coastal Commission for approval. Supporters hope it will open the door for money to build barriers and protect the coast.

“We can get a jump start on regional, state or federal funding that might assist us in funding those projects,” Woodhouse said.

Still, frustration looms among many homeowners with some fearing their family’s future in Pacifica.

“How can this council send a document that is knowingly flawed to the California Coastal Commission for their approval?” Guillet asked.

Some residents were also fired up because two council members sat and voted at the special meeting, despite getting outvoted or reaching the end of their term in the last election. New council members will be installed at the next regular meeting and the sea level rise adaptation plan will be in their hands.

City Council has until mid-December 2019 to submit the entire Local Coastal Plan to the California Coastal Commission for approval.