The stretch of West Cliff Drive where a portion of sidewalk collapsed in November
A portion of sidewalk along West Cliff Drive collapsed in November, before the damage visited on the area by winter storms.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A new, sophisticated sea level rise study will drive Santa Cruz County’s coastline policies on climate change

Historically hesitant to adopt the state’s philosophy on how to handle sea level rise and an eroding coastline, Santa Cruz County just received nearly $1 million from the California Coastal Commission for its most sophisticated sea level rise vulnerability study to date. One top county official said the study will drive the county’s coastline strategy on climate change.

How should we value the loss of a beach? As sea levels rise and erosion eats away the coastline, it’s an increasingly urgent question that Santa Cruz County is setting out to answer.

With a $780,000 check from the California Coastal Commission, the county will undertake the most sophisticated study to date on its coast’s vulnerability to sea level rise and its threat to and impact on the county economy. Most important, the study will produce a set of recommendations on how to move forward into a future of profound changes to private and public property along the coast.

As state and local officials see it, the study and the subsequent policy changes it wrings out will look to bridge the schism between state and county philosophies on navigating sea level rise.

As an arm of the state, the Coastal Commission has adopted a policy of allowing nature to take its course, as opposed to constructing seawalls and armoring the coastline against erosion. In Santa Cruz County, the 32 miles of coastal land is a stretch of economically valuable public and private real estate, a reality that has complicated how the local government engages with the issue of the changing coastline. Last year, when the county submitted a mandated update to its local coastal plan, the Coastal Commission rejected it for failing to incorporate an adequate strategy for naturally allowing the coastline to erode as sea levels rise.

During a meeting Wednesday, Coastal Commissioner Mike Wilson acknowledged the “clashing” between the coastal policies of Santa Cruz County and the state.

“Local decisions are often made by local coastal property owners, and [this kind of planning] is a way we are trying to deal with that,” Wilson said.

The county has paid for sea level rise vulnerability studies in the past, most recently in 2013, said David Carlson, resource planner with the county’s community development and infrastructure department. That “very basic” study offered a glimpse into the value of private property at risk, and projected water and erosion levels. Carlson said this latest effort is profoundly more comprehensive. The analysis will give the county a sense of what the loss of a beach to sea level rise would mean to the Santa Cruz County economy, putting a dollar amount to variables such as the impacts on tourism and property value loss.

“There have been a lot of disagreements [between Santa Cruz County and the state] on the coastal policy,” Carlson said. “We’re hoping to avoid that — we have to avoid that. We’re not going to spend this money on the study and end up back where we started.”

Unlike a typical climate change and sea level rise study, Carlson said this will not focus on timelines. Instead of making broad mandates tied to future dates, such as pull back all development from the coastline by 2050, the study will develop agreed-upon triggers for policy action. What this looks like is still vague, but Carlson said it will help provide certainty among the county and property owners as the coastline begins to change.

“Does the county need to get to a managed retreat policy? That is possibly a part of this,” Carlson said. “But there could be triggers for a managed retreat policy instead of a blanket policy across the coast. It could be neighborhood-based. We need to agree early on and coordinate with staff to know that we’re on the right track and looking at pathways we know are appropriate. I wouldn’t say managed retreat is a goal or the end result. It will probably be more nuanced.”

In an email to the Coastal Commission, Steve Forer, president of the influential Coastal Property Owners Association of Santa Cruz County, said the group supports the study and analyses but emphasized the need for triggers instead of preemptive blanket policies.

“The project would build adaptation approaches at both the countywide and neighborhood scale, including phased, trigger-based adaptation pathways,” Forer wrote.

Carlson said the project will take between two and three years to complete, and will begin after the county hires a team of consultants.

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