Commission cuts down year-round seal rope permit request for La Jolla Children's Pool

People for and against a year-round rope at Children’s pool filled San Diego City Council chambers Sept. 27 as the city's Planning Commission deliberated the issue.
People for and against a year-round rope at Children’s pool filled San Diego City Council chambers Sept. 27 as the city's Planning Commission deliberated the issue.
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People for and against a year-round rope at Children’s pool filled San Diego City Council chambers Sept. 27 as the city's Planning Commission deliberated the issue. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Despite the California Coastal Commission’s unanimous July approval of a Coastal Development Permit to install a year-round rope separating humans and seals at Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla, San Diego’s Planning Commission drew a firm line in the sand Sept. 27, 2012, once again denying the year-round rope.

Planning commissioners voted against their own staff’s recommendation to allow the year- round rope. Currently, the rope is up only six months a year, during the seals’ winter pupping season.

After hours of public testimony on both sides of the issue, the commissioners unanimously reached the same conclusion they had in December 2010 — the rope prohibits beach access in violation of La Jolla’s community plan.

The Planning Commission was technically hearing an appeal of the San Diego City Council’s May 2010 approval of a site development permit to install and maintain the year-round rope, which is intended as a buffer between humans and seals.

Prior to the commissioners’ deliberation, public interest attorney Bryan Pease, who filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of the Animal Protection and Rescue League, demanding the year-round rope, questioned why the issue was brought back before the Planning Commission.

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Jim Fitzgerald, a board member with Project Wildlife and the lone La Jolla Community Planning Association board member who supports a year-round rope, said the year-round rope provides a reasonable and sensible buffer that protects both the seals and public access to the beach for swimming, diving and fishing.

“The City Council has already made the exact same findings that the Planning Commission is being asked to make,” Pease said. “The Coastal Commission also made the exact same findings in granting the coastal development permit. The City Council ... and the Coastal Commission are above the Planning Commission and the land use hierarchy. For the Planning Commission to make different findings based on the same facts would just be, I believe, an abuse of discretion.”

Joe Cordaro, a retired wildlife biologist assigned to study the seal issue at Children’s Pool as an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he has attended countless meetings with people on both sides of the issue through the years.

“Yet here we are 20 years later still debating this issue, which is kind of frustrating,” he said.

Cordaro said it is important to keep the seal rope up beyond the pupping season, as molting — a one- to three-month process in which seals shed their furry coats — is an important period in the animals’ lives, and begins after the last pup is weaned from its mother, at the beginning of summer.

The current harbor seal population in California is about 30,000 to 40,000. The seals are neither a threatened, nor endangered species.

However, Cordaro said, “The (federal) Marine Mammal Protection Act does not differentiate between a stable and a depressed population. Both populations are afforded equal protection under the law.”

When the seals first began moving from Seal Rock (located off the La Jolla coast) to Children’s Pool beach in the early 1990s, Cordaro advised city officials that under the Marine Mammal Protection Act they could legally prevent the seals “from populating a beach where they’ve never been before ... and trying to make a foothold.”

“That’s what we told the city of San Diego way back in the 1990s, that it had to have this beach for either people or for seals,” Cordaro said. “We didn’t believe in a shared-use policy because we knew there would be problems, but the City Council didn’t listen to our recommendations. That’s really why we’re here now.”

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