La Jolla Cove Stench: City to reveal fence removal decision Nov. 15 in effort to thin sea lion colony

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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 photos

By Pat Sherman

Merchants and residents fed up with the embarrassing stench that returned to La Jolla Cove in recent months met with government officials last week, at which time they were told that the public is free to jump the fence above the Cove and walk down onto the cliffs — a favored community solution to eliminate defecating birds and sea lions (and their smelly waste) from La Jolla Cove.

Mark Dibella, managing director for La Valencia Hotel said that by deterring people from walking on the rocks, the fence has created a safe haven for marine mammals and birds to colonize.

“Hence, (we go) back to a question we’ve had for a year-and-a-half,” Dibella said. “Is the fence legally required to be there? They literally said during that entire meeting, ‘Anybody can hop the fence — we wouldn’t stop you.’ ”

So that’s just what George’s at the Cove owner George Hauer did on Friday, Nov. 1, and again on Nov. 6.

Hauer, who started an online petition last year to spur city officials to address the Cove odor problem, is among a growing group of residents and business leaders — including Dibella and La Jolla Cove Suites owner Krista Baroudi — who are unified in their belief that removing the fence (or adding a gate to it) would diminish the presence of the birds and sea lions by providing public access to the bluff.

During Hauer’s first trek onto the cliffs, a local animal rights activist filmed him and sent the video to a local TV news station. On Nov. 6, when he walked onto the cliffs again, Hauer was asked by lifeguards to come up from the beach, and was questioned by three uniformed police officers.

“Why are we wasting police officers’ and lifeguards’ time because some old man walks down onto the bluffs?” Hauer asked. “The seal fanatics are driving all this … and that’s who the politicians are afraid of.”

San Diego Police Northern Division Lt. Tom Underwood said on Nov. 6 lifeguards were alerted to “a male that was out past the railing yelling and screaming at the sea lions, (adding that) some of the sea lions had flushed back into the ocean and some of the birds had flown away.”

Though neither lifeguards nor police witnessed Hauer yelling at sea lions, Underwood said officers informed him of a municipal code section pertaining to the harassment of wildlife.

“That was the section he was told he could potentially have been in violation of,” Underwood said. “It had nothing to do with him being out on the rocks. It had to do with his (alleged) behavior on the rocks.”

Lifeguard spokesperson Maurice Luque confirmed that lifeguards have not been instructed to keep people from walking on the rocks, “unless they’re putting themselves at risk because of breaking surf or high tide conditions … or if the lifeguards interpret their actions as being harassment of a (sea lion).”

Luque said lifeguards called police because they were concerned that a group of people monitoring Hauer could decide to retaliate against him.

Whether or not Hauer was at risk, he said both times his presence served to disperse the sea lions.

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On Nov. 6 Mark Dibella, managing director of La Valencia Hotel, points across La Jolla Cove to rocks where children and adults search for little sea creatures, and where there were very few sea lions that day (compared with the area directly below the fence where people assume they may no longer tread). "I rest my case," Dibella said.

“It effectively cleared the entire area — all the (sea lions), everything — proving that if we open this to humans we can take care of the problem,” Hauer said, “When human beings go down there those animals are going to leave and they’ll find another place to (create) an open-air sewer.”

On Nov. 8, Stacey LoMedico, the city’s new assistant chief operating officer (formerly the director of park and recreation), issued a memo stating that city staff is conferring with the city's risk management department and city attorney's office to determine whether an opening and/or gate can be installed at the fence on Coast Boulevard, and will issue a formal answer on Nov. 15.

The memo, issued in response to concerns raised at the recent meeting with city officials, states, in part, that though there are no restrictions to people accessing the rocks/cliffs above La Jolla Cove, "access is discouraged as the area can be unstable due to the erosion of the cliffs/rocks" and that, according to city municipal code, "it is unlawful to take, kill, wound, disturb, or maltreat any bird or animal, either wild or domesticated, unless the same shall have been declared noxious by the city manager and a permit issued for the killing of such noxious animals.The memo adds that the Marine Mammal Protection Act also prevents people from harassing, disturbing, feeding or capturing sea lions or seals.

Though the first round of a two-part cleanup of bird excrement on the cliffs above La Jolla Cove seemed to eradicate the smell through summer, the stench returned — even after a second application of a microbial agent that digests bird guano was applied in September.

The city says the source of the smell is currently not waste from the winged cormorants, but excrement from an expanding sea lion colony (not the seals to the south at Children’s Pool) — a problem officials say could prove more difficult and time consuming to remedy than the bird guano.

Baroudi, of La Jolla Cove Suites, said she took a friend to George’s at the Cove for her birthday last week and was shocked by how intense the smell was.

Though Hauer, Dibella and Baroudi all agree that the first cove cleanup significantly reduced the smell during summer, Baroudi said the odor has gradually returned, and the second cove spraying provided no relief.

“We have numerous guest complaints on a regular basis; they show up in our trip reviews,” Baroudi said. “If the odor is bad and we’re giving a tour, we lose bookings.

“Just as La Valencia (which recently lost $6,000 in bookings when a guest arrived and canceled a suite and a block of rooms), we have seen people check in and check out because of the smell,” Baroudi said, adding that she and other employees at La Jolla Cove Suites routinely leave work with headaches from the stench.

La Jolla Village Merchants Association Executive Director Sheila Fortune said she has developed respiratory problems since January, when the association moved into its Information Center on Prospect Street, directly above La Jolla Cove.

“What we have now is a health menace,” Hauer said. “All we’re asking the city to do is to take something down that they put up without any kind of community review.”

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George Hauer, owner of George's at the Cove restaurant, says lifeguards and police confronted him when he walked onto the cliffs above La Jolla Cove this month. City officials say the public is legally permitted to tread there if they do not harass wildlife, although access has been blocked for at least a decade by a wood fence along Coast Boulevard.

Health concerns

Mark McPherson, chief of land and water quality for the County of San Diego Department of Environmental Health, told

La Jolla Light

a posted health advisory at La Jolla Cove last month was due to the presence of

Enterococcus

bacteria, which he said was “relatively low, but above state standards.”

McPherson said it is difficult to tell what the source of the bacteria was. “It could have been birds; it could have been sea lions; it could have been a lot of things.”

“We haven’t seen any chronic conditions at La Jolla Cove due to sea lions,” McPherson added, though noting the county takes weekly samples at La Jolla Cove from April 1 through Oct. 31, but doesn’t test the water there during the winter due to state budget constraints.

“It’s not cheap to do water quality monitoring,” he said, pointing out that the county does take weekly tests during winter at 15 of the 40 beaches it monitors, including Torrey Pines river mouth and Swami’s and Moonlight beaches. McPherson said these are more frequently used during winter and viewed as having a higher likelihood of contamination.

“We always have the option to increase, decrease or change water sample (patterns) during winter months,” McPherson said. “If we thought public health was an issue we would definitely look at it (testing La Jolla Cove during winter).”

Proposed solutions

“We recognize that this is a significant problem and that something needs to be done,” said Alex Roth, a spokesperson for the office of Interim Mayor Todd Gloria. “We understand that very clearly. We understand that this is impacting the quality of life of La Jolla residents. We understand it’s hurting businesses there.”

Bill Harris, head of the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department, said the city is looking at “anything and everything” to solve the problem, “within the bounds of what we’re allowed to do.” (Read more

here

.)

Those options include:

•  Treating the sea lion waste with the same microbial foam used to treat the bird guano (though city officials feel it is not a viable solution due the volume of sea lion waste and frequency with which it is deposited on the rocks);

•  Harassing the sea lions with amplified noise such as dogs barking (as allowed in certain circumstances under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act);

• Using native plant species that produce a smell that repels sea lions.

Meanwhile, District 1 City Councilmember Sherri Lightner is  “pushing hard” for the formation of a coastal management plan her office would spearhead to “help address the proliferation of sea lions, seals and birds,” and will make it a budget priority, said Jill Esterbrooks, her communications director

“We would be looking at best practices from other cities and municipalities up and down the California Coast who deal with the same issues,” Esterbrooks said. “We’re looking to see what they do, how they manage it.”

Baroudi said a solution had better come fast. After nearly two years of enduring a loss of business and nauseating condition, she said the town is at its “wits’ end.”

“Nobody’s going to sit by and let this continue any longer,” she said.

   
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