Planning Commission rejects seasonal beach closure at La Jolla Children's Pool, opts for shared-use

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People view harbor seals at Children’s Pool Dec. 30. The planning commission rejected a plan last month that would close the beach to humans during the seals’ five-month pupping season (Dec. 15-May 15). Pat Sherman

By Pat Sherman

The San Diego Planning Commission rejected a proposal last month to close Children’s Pool (aka Casa Beach) entirely during the harbor seals’ pupping season (Dec. 15-May 15) by a vote of 4-3 — a reversal of its 4-2 vote in September to recommend that the city council approve the closure.

In September and again last month, planning commissioners were asked to consider revisions to the La Jolla Community Plan and Local Coastal Program that would allow for the closure.

The proposal before the commission in September involved establishing Children’s Pool as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA). However, in an Oct. 25 memo, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) — which must issue a coastal development permit for the closure — said it favors closure, but not the formation of a restrictive ESHA to do so.

Instead, the CCC said it prefers using Provision 30230 of the California Coastal Act, which deals with the maintenance of marine resources.

The CCC memo stated that, although other coastal jurisdictions with seal rookeries or haul-out sites have formed ESHAs to protect pinnipeds, conditions at Children’s Pool are different, given the Children’s Pool’s “proximity to an intense urban setting, ease in accessibility… dedicated user groups and the city’s joint-use management strategy that has allowed people and seals to share the beach” for eight decades.

Responding to the CCC memo, the city council postponed its Oct. 29 vote on the closure until the revised proposal could be returned to the planning commission for another review.

The city’s Park and Recreation Department is seeking the pupping season closure based on observed harassment of harbor seals on the beach.

“Current joint use is not appropriate to prevent the harassment and illegal interactions that have been happening,” city project manager Morris Dye said during the Dec. 12 planning commission hearing.

However, attorney Bernie King, representing pro-beach access group, Friends of the Children’s Pool, said the harassment has been overstated.

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Visitors view the harbor seals at Children's Pool during the first month of the marine mammals' pupping season.

“If this was such a massive problem that we need to prohibit access to the beach, where … is one successful prosecution of someone harassing a seal?” King questioned. “It hasn’t happened, because this is an overreaction to a problem that does not exist.”

Several commissioners expressed support for a plan to install a moveable barrier on the beach that would separate humans and seals, maintaining shared beach access year-round (with stronger penalties for those who harass seals).

Speaking on behalf of that plan — first proposed by the San Diego Lifeguard Union — pro-beach access advocate John Leek said it would need to evolve from its initial concept, which called for boulders to be placed on the beach to separate humans and seals, which would be relocated seasonally (a method many deemed impractical).

“Forget the (moveable) boulders,” Leek said, adding that Park and Recreation could help perfect the plan, which might involve “taking the (existing) guideline rope and turning it (vertically) … so that people know where they cannot go.”

Under such a plan, Leek said, La Jolla’s local coastal program and community plan would not require amendments.

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