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City attorney: Coastal permit needed for seal rope; leaves emergency call to mayor

A legal opinion issued by the City Attorney on the rope barrier separating seals from beachgoers at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool finds there is a basis for extending it year round under the normal Coastal Commission process.

The opinion concludes that a Coastal Development Permit (CDP) is necessary to reinstate the rope barrier. But it does not advocate whether Mayor Jerry Sanders should declare an “emergency” to allow immediate placement of the rope barrier without following the normal permitting process.

The city council voted 7-2 on May 17 to keep the barrier up year-round, to close the beach completely during the seals’ pupping season and to prohibit dogs year round. They also agreed that to hire a privately funded ranger to enforce regulations and lead a docent program.

Whatever the mayor ultimately decides with the rope barrier at the pool, there are moves afoot to challenge, or at least slow down, the application process for reinstating the rope.

Meanwhile, retired La Jolla physicians Richard Merino and Clement Hoffman, who both testified at the May 17 City Council hearing at Sherwood Auditorium, have petitioned Sanders, asking him to not to declare a coastal emergency and instead obtain a full and complete environmental impact report to study the impacts of the seal colony at Children’s Pool.

“The Public Health Department has found enormous levels of seal pollution at Children’s Pool,” said Hoffman. “Seals carry human pathogens like e. coli, beta-strep, salmonella, brucella, etc. Any time you make a major land-use decision — which they’ve actively done by protecting the seals — you need to look at the impact and they’ve (city) totally ignored that.”

But attorney Bryan Pease, president of the Animal Protection & Rescue League which has fought the seals’ case throughout the years, said the having the barrier down now and not separating humans from pinnipeds constitutes a coastal emergency.

“If they (city) don’t go through the emergency process it’s going to be the whole summer before they have the rope up,” he said. “That’s not what the City Council intended. If you’re going to have the rope up year round, why wait?”

The City Attorney’s legal opinion lays out arguments both for and against declaring an “emergency.” Such an emergency is defined as “a sudden, unexpected occurrence ...

that demands immediate action to prevent or mitigate loss of or damage to life, health, property or essential public services.”

“The decision (reinstating the rope) is made by a hearing officer, with appeal to the Planning Commission and Coastal Commission,” Gina Coburn, communications director for the city attorney, wrote in an e-mail.

“Whether to grant an emergency permit for immediately reinstating the rope, however, is up to the Mayor who must exercise his discretion after considering the facts,” she continued. “We outlined the law and provided arguments for and against issuance of an emergency permit.”

Coburn said an emergency permit would only be issued pending application under the normal process.

“They are not mutually exclusive,” she said. “If an emergency permit is issued, it is only in effect until a permit is either issued or denied under the normal process.”

Concerning the timetable for getting that permit, Coburn said, “In the past that process has taken about three to four months.”

Coburn said she was uncertain about the cost of acquiring the permit, noting city staff alone have been used for the application process in the past.