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Coastal Commission denies appeal challenging Children’s Pool retaining wall in La Jolla

A 30-inch retaining wall is under a locked gate at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The California Coastal Commission effectively put an end to the issue of a controversial retaining wall built at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool when it ruled Sept. 10 that an appeal by the La Jolla Community Planning Association raised no new substantial issues and would not be heard further.

The 30-inch retaining wall under a locked gate was built as part of a Children’s Pool lifeguard tower reconstruction project at 850 Coast Blvd. and will remain as is after the Coastal Commission decision.

It was discovered when the tower opened in 2017. Local groups argued that the wall blocks a slope between the street level and the beach, referred to by beach access advocates as a “public access ramp.”

The slope runs between the Children’s Pool lifeguard tower and the seawall and has historically been used by those in wheelchairs (or with wheeled equipment such as wagons) to access the beach. But in recent years, the ramp has been blocked by a metal gate. Those determined to access the beach sometimes slide under the gate and go down the ramp.

When the lifeguard tower was reconstructed, a disabled-accessible ramp was built to allow access to the middle level where the restrooms are located, but not to the beach itself. Once the ramp was completed, the city of San Diego built the retaining wall in front of the slope that was previously used as a ramp.

The wall was not included in the original plans for the lifeguard station and therefore constituted unpermitted development, according to Coastal Commission staff. To obtain after-the-fact authorization, the city proceeded with what is known as a substantial conformance review to determine whether the work essentially met the terms of the already approved permit.

In 2019, the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee and LJCPA voted against the review because they disagreed with the city’s assertion that the wall was necessary.

But by that point, the city had already approved the SCR, so LJCPA filed an appeal and asked to be heard by the City Council.

The council voted in September 2019 that the wall substantially conforms to the previously approved permit.

Soon after, La Jollan Ken Hunrichs, representing LJCPA, filed an appeal to the Coastal Commission that was heard during its meeting this week. It was scheduled to be heard as early as February but was repeatedly postponed.

“The city has indicated the retaining wall was necessary to support the new [disabled] ramp from Coast Boulevard to the lower level,” commission coastal program analyst Melody Lasiter said. “Specifically, construction of the [disabled] ramp required the existing grade to be lowered, which caused the bluff and gate footings to become exposed. The retaining wall was constructed to support the existing gate, prevent erosion of the bluff, retain the exposed bluff soil to prevent it from falling onto the ramp and a safety barrier for the ramp.”

Speaking to the argument that the retaining wall blocks the slope “ramp,” which has an uneven surface and does not have rails on either side, she said: “The city’s research into the history of the ramp has not uncovered any evidence that this ramp was used for any other purpose other than for emergency vehicle access, which no longer occurs due to its eroded state. While the ramp may have been used by the public historically as an alternative accessway, the gate has been locked since the ‘90s and the eroded ramp has not been safe for public access since that time. … Emergency personnel use the stairs or breakwater for emergency access to the beach.”

In his rebuttal, Hunrichs said that “for most of the 83 years since the Children’s Pool was gifted to the people, the ramp was the preferred method for people to get to the beach. It was kept in excellent condition by the city for public use. The city officials are not telling you the truth about this ramp. The staff dismissed written testimony by dozens of residents and former lifeguards verifying public use of this ramp.”

“Blocking this ramp is in conflict with every coastal access policy in the Coastal Act and the La Jolla Community Plan,” he added. “It was a substantial change that required public notice and a new environmental review that was not done.”

The commission unanimously passed a motion to support staff’s position that the appeal did not raise any new issues.

Afterward, Hunrichs told the La Jolla Light that “when the city built a concrete wall blocking the beach ramp to Children’s Pool, there were dozens of conflicts with the La Jolla Community Plan/Local Coastal Program. The commission excused them all, invalidating community input in managing community resources in the Coastal Zone. The La Jolla Community Plan is worthless when such obvious violations are not taken seriously and are so casually dismissed by the commission.” ◆