Business owners sue city over La Jolla Cove odor caused by sea lions and bird waste

La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director, Sheila Fortune, and George's at the Cove owner, George Hauer, view a sea lion colony at La Jolla Cove that city officials say has caused the stench to return to the Village in full force. "What we have now is a health menace," Hauer said. Pat Sherman photos
La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director, Sheila Fortune, and George's at the Cove owner, George Hauer, view a sea lion colony at La Jolla Cove that city officials say has caused the stench to return to the Village in full force. "What we have now is a health menace," Hauer said. Pat Sherman photos
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La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director, Sheila Fortune, and George's at the Cove owner, George Hauer, view a sea lion colony at La Jolla Cove that city officials say has caused the stench to return to the Village in full force. "What we have now is a health menace," Hauer said. Pat Sherman photo

By Pat Sherman

Business owners fed up with the pervasive stench at La Jolla Cove — and what they consider the city officials’ reluctance to solve the problem with bold action — filed suit against the City of San Diego in Superior Court last week.

Last month, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria said ridding the Cove of its odor — believed to be caused by excrement on the cliffs from sea lions and cormorants (seabirds) — is a priority for his office.

However, after two years of watching diners overcome by that smell flee his outdoor restaurant patio, George’s at the Cove owner George Hauer is hoping legal action will serve as added incentive for city officials to treat the odor like they would any immediate threat to public health and safety.

“If there was a fire on the cliff, the city could take a hose and put it out (so that nearby structures wouldn’t burn down),” said La Jolla Shores attorney Norm Blumenthal of Blumenthal, Nordrehaug and Bhowmik. Blumenthal filed the suit on behalf of the nonprofit “Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement,” of which Hauer is president.

The suit does not seek damages, Blumenthal said, only for the court to issue an order for the city to abate the nuisance.

“We’re going to get this done in 60 days — that is my goal,” Blumenthal said. “The city is completely inept. This should have been done two-and-a-half years ago. … An odor is a public nuisance, and the city is required by law to abate this public nuisance.”

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City workers placed tape over a portion of this sign above La Jolla Cove that once read "No Public Access." Ashley Mackin photo

The suit, also filed on behalf of La Valencia Hotel (which has also lost business due to the odor) further demands that the city reopen human access to the cliffs above La Jolla Cove, as a deterrent to sea lions and cormorants gathering there — an action city officials are currently considering, based on a groundswell of community support. The San Diego City Attorney’s office issued a legal opinion on the proposal in December, which was sent to city staff and the mayor’s office.The city has stated that people are free to walk along the cliffs, though the fence blocks human access from the sidewalk.

On Dec. 20, a La Jolla resident said he witnessed San Diego Park and Recreation workers clearing a few feet of brush behind the fence, as well as a narrow trail leading to the bluff, leading some to believe the city may be ready to add a gate in the fence. Cautionary signs along the fence that read: Unstable Cliffs/Stay Back/No Public Access have been altered, with the statement “No Public Access” covered up with tape (signs near Goldfish Point still read “no public access").

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On Dec. 20, 2013, city workers cleared this area behind the fence, as well as an adjacent trail leading to the bluffs below. Ashley Mackin photo

Hauer's lawsuit contends that the fence was built “without an environmental impact report and is in violation of (La Jolla’s) Local Coastal Plan, which requires maximizing coastal access.

“Preventing coastal access to the rocks by the public gradually led to a buildup of excrement from sea lions and cormorant birds,” the suit reads, in part. “The installation of caution signs should be more than sufficient to protect the safety of the pedestrians that assume the risk of walking on the rocks.”

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