Gate Goes In: City creates access to La Jolla Cove cliffs

Crews work the morning of Dec. 31, 2013 to install a gate in the fence at La Jolla Cove and establish a path leading down to the bluffs so people can access the area now chiefly filled with sea lions. Ashley Mackin

By Pat Sherman

Following months of pressure from residents and business owners, on Dec. 31 the City of San Diego installed a gate in the fence above La Jolla Cove to make it easier for people to walk down onto the bluffs.

A group of La Jollans have been urging the city to re-establish human access to the cliffs as a deterrent to sea lions and cormorants gathering and defecating there, believed to be the source of the foul odor that has besieged the Village in recent years. They argue that there were no sea lions and few birds on the bluffs when people were able to easily access them from Coast Boulevard (before the fence was installed more than a decade ago as a safety precaution).

The San Diego City Attorney’s office issued a legal opinion on the gate installation in November, which was sent to city staff and the mayor’s office. The city says it has always been legal for people to walk along the cliffs, though the fence blocked the most direct access from Coast Boulevard.

On Dec. 20, San Diego Park and Recreation workers cleared brush behind the fence, adjacent a path leading to the bluffs. Cautionary signs along the fence that read: Unstable Cliffs/Stay Back/No Public Access were altered to cover up the statement “No Public Access.”

“The community has made it clear that they want access to those cliffs and that they think that access could alleviate or solve this problem. We’re giving them access with this,” said Alex Roth, a spokesperson for the office of interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria. “We want to solve this problem. We’re as concerned as everyone in La Jolla is about this situation.”

Roth said city signs along the Cove fence make it clear that people who choose to walk along the cliffs do so at their own risk, just as do people who walk along unfenced ocean bluffs at Sunset Cliffs and other spots along the San Diego County coastline.

San Diego lifeguards will monitor to make sure people don’t injure themselves, or injure or intentionally harass the wildlife, he said.

Roth stressed that the gate is part of a process to rid the Cove of its reek, and not necessarily a magic bullet.

“We’re going to see if this helps. If it does, fantastic; if it doesn’t, we’ll move on to whatever Plan B is,” he said. “We’re going to take this one step at a time and see what happens with this gate. We’ll reevaluate our options at that time. We’re considering a whole other range of options.”

Sea lions gather on the bluff just below the spot at which city workers installed the gate Dec. 31.

Business owners file suit

Roth said the city decided to install the gate on Dec. 17, three days before a group of La Jolla business owners fed up with the stench — and what they considered officials’ reluctance to solve the problem with bold action — filed suit against the City of San Diego.

George’s at the Cove restaurant owner George Hauer hoped legal action would 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),” 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. “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.”

The suit, also filed on behalf of La Valencia Hotel (which also claims to have lost business due to the odor) 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.

At press time, city attorney spokesperson Thomas Mitchell said the city had not yet been served with the suit, though he said “any lawsuit seeking to mandate mitigation options that the city is already exploring would be counterproductive.”

A dirt path just inside the new gate leads down to the bluffs.

An unlikely ally?

The suit was filed in concert with environmental law attorney Bryan Pease, known to La Jollans for his efforts to protect the harbor seal rookery south of La Jolla Cove at the Children’s Pool (aka Casa Beach).

Pease first teamed with Blumenthal in 2008, to thwart the city’s planned dispersal of the seals at Children’s Pool.

“There can therefore be no doubt that the plaintiffs and their attorneys are in favor of protection of marine mammals and seek here only to balance this goal with coastal access and control of noxious odors,” reads the suit, which contends that the distinction between the seal rookery at Children’s Pool and the sea lion colony at the Cove is an important one.

“Sea lions are much more agile on land than the harbor seals. The sea lions, unlike the harbor seals, can climb high up on rocks and other surfaces above the area the high tides reach. … Due to their lack of agility on land, the areas where the harbor seals defecate are within the mean high tide line, so their waste is flushed into the ocean. ... For this reason, the Children’s Pool seals are not the cause of the foul odor that is the subject of this lawsuit.”

Ashley Mackin contributed to this report.

Expert Weighs In (compiled by Ashley Mackin)

Monica DeAngelis

, a marine mammal biologist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ West Coast Region, answered La Jolla Light’s questions about the sea lion presence at La Jolla Cove, lending an opinion from a biological perspective. She addressed the smell, its possible cause and how it compares to other areas.

■ Has the number of sea lions in La Jolla increased or changed in a significant way?

The number of sea lions using those rocks at the bluff to haul out appears to have increased in that area over the years, certainly with any regularity and at any given time during the day. In other words, the total number may not have changed significantly – if we looked at an annual average of use – but it sure seems like the number of animals hauling out at any given time seems to be more than in the past and with more consistency.

■ What do you see as cause of the smell?

It’s most likely their waste and the fact that it’s remaining on the rocks (i.e., not washing off). The sun is “cooking” it, so that might intensify the odor.

■ How do the smell and its potency at the Cove compare to that of other cities with similar sea lion populations? Is this a problem unique to La Jolla?

The smell level is comparable to other areas where sea lions haul out. The intensity will shift with the wind, as will the direction of the odor (i.e., high winds will cause it to dissipate and no wind may cause it to appear to linger). Temperature – really hot days — may make it seem like it smells even worse. The problem is not unique.

■ Do you see the creation of a gate at the bluffs to allow human access there as a solution for deterring the sea lion presence?

It’s a complicated issue and human safety should be seriously considered.



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