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San Diego to launch permit process for future Point La Jolla closures during sea lion pupping season

Signage along the concrete wall that lines Point La Jolla directs people away from the bluffs.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Local organizations and the public will have the opportunity to discuss the application and provide feedback, councilman says.

As San Diego’s emergency closure of Point La Jolla nears its end on Wednesday, Sept. 15, the city is already eyeing future closures intended to keep people separated from sea lions.

City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, sent a notice to community leaders Sept. 1 indicating that the city would “follow up with a coastal development permit for subsequent pupping seasons.”

Point La Jolla is a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach where sea lions often go on land to rest. It also is a sea lion birthing area where the annual pupping season is recognized from June 1 to Oct. 31.

The San Diego Parks & Recreation Department orchestrated the emergency closure Aug. 11 after months of reports of beach-goers bothering, and in a few cases harming, sea lions and their pups. Officials said visitors also could be at risk of being bitten by sea lions if they feel threatened.

“Since the closure was enacted, the city has seen a dramatic improvement in safety conditions in the area, reducing dangerous interaction between the public and the sea lions, while maintaining this unique and spectacular viewpoint,” LaCava said in his letter to community leaders.

Beach-goers view sea lions hauling out at Point La Jolla in June, before the current temporary closure.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The temporary closure was authorized through an emergency coastal development permit from the city Development Services Department. For any future closures, the city would follow a regular CDP process with the California Coastal Commission, LaCava told the La Jolla Light.

“The emergency CDP was responding to a situation that we saw as needing an immediate response,” he said. “We used the emergency CDP to deal with issues we were seeing on the ground.”

When an emergency CDP lapses, the procedure is to apply for a regular CDP and go through a more comprehensive process that includes more public input.

A timeline for when the permit may be applied for is not yet set, LaCava said in his letter, though the application “is expected in the near term.”

“Until the Department of Parks & Recreation files the application, the exact nature of what may be done next year has yet to be determined,” LaCava said. “What [the closure] will look like, what time period, etc., is still being discussed and will be fully outlined when the application is filed from Parks & Recreation to Development Services [which oversees coastal development permits].”

Once the application is filed, LaCava said, he will reach out to local organizations “to discuss the application and get their feedback.” The public also will be able to contribute their “thoughts and refinements,” he said.

While the mechanism for future closures of Point La Jolla has not yet been decided, LaCava said preserving access to nearby Boomer Beach is important. “We want to re-emphasize the importance of preserving access to Boomer Beach and make sure [that] while Point La Jolla is closed, we do not block access to that beach,” he said. “That is going to be a prime consideration.”

The current closure area comprises both sand and bluffs and is bordered by the beach access stairs to the north, the concrete wall along the boardwalk to the east, and a plastic barrier to the south about 25 feet from the end of the metal railing along Boomer Beach. At the southern side of the plastic barrier is a small trail that leads down to Boomer Beach.

A group of bodysurfers and others gathered Aug. 20 at the trailhead to show how the access is used and to advocate for keeping it open during any future closures. At the time, LaCava was criticized for creating policy based on the actions of tourists who get too close to the sea lions instead of on locals who do not.

District 1 City Councilman Joe LaCava
San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava represents District 1, which includes La Jolla.
(File)

“The most difficult thing when there is a problem is figuring out how to solve it, because whatever solution, be it policy or permit, inevitably applies to everyone,” LaCava said. “You can’t parse it out so there are rules for this group but another group would not be affected by it.”

LaCava told the La Jolla Community Planning Association last month that a “responsible tourism” public education campaign and a sign program telling people to keep their distance from the sea lions were “not particularly effective” and that the city had decided to take “more assertive steps.”

“There was the hope we could go through an education process so everyone would recognize the more responsible way to behave … but it was the continued behavior that starts to force one’s hands,” he told the Light. “Ultimately we had to do something that applies to everyone. There was the recognition that we should not close access to Boomer Beach, and that is primarily for locals.”

“We are in a unique situation in La Jolla in that this is our backyard, but this is also the playground for all San Diegans and visitors around the world,” he added. “We have to find that balance for what we have enjoyed and the reaction of people who come to visit. The conversation is not taken lightly in terms of decisions that have to be made. We have to look at the most effective way to address how the public is acting.”

When the current closure is over, the signs will come down and access will be permitted on the bluffs. However, increased enforcement through an extra park ranger will continue.

Richard Miller, director of the Sierra Club San Diego chapter, said LaCava’s letter was “not surprising” because the city needs to “do something to protect the sea lions during the pupping season and address public safety. They need to look at a long-term solution, which would be to pursue an annual closure. We envision that the closure would look very similar to what the temporary closure is like. The temporary closure has definitely had a positive impact on the sea lion rookery, with incidents of harassment down substantially and a positive reaction from visitors who are able to enjoy watching the sea lions and birds.” ◆