Coastal Commission Approves SANDAG’S Del Mar Bluff Stabilization Project

Yesterday (June 8, 2022), sitting in session at the Del Mar Hilton, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to approve SANDAG’s $68 million Del Mar bluff stabilization project called “DMB5.” Important mitigation measures required by the approval include removal of the seawalls after 30 years or when the railroad tracks are relocated off the bluff, and improved public access, including at least one safe and legal track crossing at either 7th or 11th street, coupled with a safe and legal improved access down to the beach.


SANDAG, Coastal Commission staff, along with Surfrider Foundation, advocated for approval with mitigation conditions. Others testified in opposition, contending the project, especially its seawalls, would do irremediable damage to the Del Mar bluffs and beach. Many advocated for delay and further study. Councilmember Terry Gaasterland read a prepared statement on behalf of the City supporting Surfrider’s input and indicating the city has “serious concerns about the adverse effects of seawalls” that need to be addressed.


What the Commission ultimately approved to stabilize the bluff was described as a three-legged stool, with each leg being necessary for the system to work to keep the rail line safe until it can be relocated inland:


  1. Drainage improvements to control surface runoff that is currently causing bluff erosion and collapse;
  2. Targeted seawalls to stabilize the toe of the bluff in vulnerable locations–about a half mile of the 1.6 mile beach in total;
  3. Upper bluff soldier piles drilled in vertically, encased in concrete with buried tie backs, to stabilize the tracks and minimize the need for seawalls and upper bluff walls. 
Photo: California Coastal Commission Staff Report.

The Commission, based on over 100 pages of staff analysis and findings, agreed this system was necessary to keep the rail system safe until it can be relocated inland, which is SANDAG’s plan by 2035. The Commission concluded the three project components provided for the least amount of seawalls and was the least environmentally damaging option available. Recognizing that seawalls are never favored, but are temporarily necessary in this unique situation, the Commission imposed mitigation requirements to address damage that will be caused by the temporary seawalls.


Mitigation: With this mitigation, the Commission found DMB5 consistent with the Coastal Act:


  • The seawalls must be removed in 30 years or when the rail is relocated, whichever occurs first, and the beach and bluffs must be restored to their natural condition.
  • Public access and recreation must be enhanced by providing at least one safe and legal track crossing at either 7th or 11th Street, coupled with a safe and legal improved access down to the beach, and adding a one mile walking trail from Seagrove Park to 4th Street along the east side of the tracks with improved trail access at the street ends;
  • The specifics of the public access improvements must be designed in consultation with the City and interested stakeholders and must proceed concurrently with the rest of the project.

Commission executive director Jack Ainsworth stated: “The engineering elements all act in concert, you can’t just pull one out. Waiting to install seawalls at another time would simply be dangerous and irresponsible…” He described the project as a “vast improvement over previous proposals.”


NCTD registered its objection to the project alleging that federal preemption law prohibits the Coastal Commission from acting.  


What from here? The next step will be for SANDAG to review the Coastal Commission’s action and prepare a construction contract for SANDAG Board approval. Then the project can start. Construction is expected to last for at least 3 years. Community outreach and design of the access improvements will start this fall when the in-process Coastal Access Study will be completed. Surfrider, the City, and others continue to advocate for access at both 7th and 11th Streets, and want a say on the details of the paths and crossings, so expect them to stay engaged.


The Commissioners indicated that relocation of the railroad off of this sensitive bluff is necessary as part of state-mandated “managed retreat” for transportation infrastructure at risk from sea level rise. Commissioners noted that this program, with SANDAG’s commitment to relocate the rails in 30 years or sooner, and with DMB5’s program elements that assure interim stabilization, designed to minimize interim environmental damage and to provide important mitigation, can be a model for other such projects.