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Safety plan in the works for the crowded and eroding Isla Vista bluffs

ISLA VISTA, Calif. - An eight-point plan has been developed for the Isla Vista bluffs where, for years, there's been an area of safety concerns.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Laura Capps presented the proposal at the park named after her late father Walter Capps, a former UCSB professor and member of U.S. Congress.

A fatal fall took the life of a student recently at the same location. There's been a renewed effort to make the area and other similar sites, on this coastline less of a risk for the public.

The bluffs are heavily populated and lined with apartments. There are several open space areas and parks where a member of the public can, gather and look at the views.

On weekend nights, thousands are out and about here, with many going in and out of parties.

The cliffs there are about 40-50 feet high. Erosion has made that coastline very unstable. In some cases the loss off land is right up to the base of balconies.

Some patios have had set backs as required by the county and other property owners see it in their future.

Capps has responded to concerns with the new safety plan in coordination with the Isla Vista Community Services District, the fire and sheriff's departments and both UCSB and Santa Barbara City College.

Capps said, "we can change the regulation and we can incentivise private property owners to raise their heights by waving  their fees, options like that. Regulatory options that sound very mundane in the face of what we are dealing with, but are absolutely necessary."

Capps says she carries with her the picture of Benny Schurmer who died in a cliff fall this month, as a reminder that safety changes here are a priority.

Heather Havens lost her son in 2022 when he returned to the area for an alumni party.

She says Capps is "being very proactive.  I think her being a mother, a single mother, she might relate to some of us.  Just seeing this shows there's going to be some action."

Havens also said at the time of her son's death she was hoping for more support from the county and did not receive it. She feels a stronger bond now with the efforts from Capps.

Anna Esquivel lost her son Alessandro in 2018. "I'm hopeful and optimistic that things start to change  and yes of course there will be obstacles. There will be trolls and bullies who don't want to see changes."

Two of Schurmer's friends from Ojai have also started an on line petition in support of these and other safety changes.

Grace Wilsons said, " we are going to do what we can right now which is spreading awareness which is  potentially signs, potentially lights, but we don't have as much power as other people here do . "

The official plan for Isla Vista bluff safety from the Office of Supervisor Laura Capps reads:

1. Fencing: 

Stakeholders have conveyed that higher fencing is the top priority to prevent cliff falls. There are approximately 70 privately owned buildings on the coastal side of Del Playa and multiple County and Isla Vista Parks and Recreation parks.  We will work closely with Planning and Development and Coastal Commission staff to expedite any necessary permitting. 

We will work with the Isla Vista Community and the Board of Supervisor to:

  • Height Requirement:  Amend Santa Barbara County Code and Building Regulations to raise the mandatory height for railings and fencing along the bluffs in Isla Vista. Currently the minimum mandatory height is 4 feet.  After hearing from the community, Supervisor Capps is suggesting a six feet minimum. 
  • County land + Private:  To be clear, this height change would apply to both county land and private property. 
  • Anti-climbing: Currently existing county fences are made with ‘anti-climbing’ material. We will inspect our fences to fortify these materials. 
  • Private property owners:  To streamline this process for private property owners, we’ll be providing incentives to make these changes as easy as possible to come into compliance.
  • Supervisor Capps will bring these proposed regulatory changes to the Board of Supervisors for their consideration by November 7th. 

2. Lighting 

These fatal cliff falls occur at night. In the past, lighting has been objected to by neighbors who want to protect their coastal views.  We believe there are innovative ways such as motion sensor lighting to protect coastal views while also potentially improving public safety. 

  • We are working with county staff to install innovative lighting along our fences. As a pilot, solar lights were installed on some signs already. 
  • We will work with property owners to incentivize this as well. 

3. Warning Signs 

Currently the county has placed many warning signs explaining the dangers presented by the cliffs. Unfortunately, these signs are often stolen and found on the walls of dorm rooms and I.V. apartments.  Accidents happen at night then signs are not as visible. 

  • We are working with County Parks to install durable signage, ideally well-lit. 
  • As mentioned, the county has already initiated a pilot project to light some of the signs. 

4. Bathrooms

We’ve learned that one reason for people to hop the fence and/or get too close to the edge is to urinate.  More public bathrooms in Isla Vista has long been a priority for the Isla Vista Community Services District. 

  • Weeks ago, the Capps office put a porta potty at Walter Capps Park.
  • IVCSD has allocated $15,000 for more. Working with them, there are now 4 porta potties along Del Playa.
  • We know there are issues with portable bathrooms and will pursue more permanent bathroom options.

5. Education

Isla Vista Community Service District has led the charge of educating students and the community about bluff safety.  We are grateful to the media for providing such valuable information about these inherent dangers, and of course to the families of those who have died for the public service they have provided for us all. 

  • We will maintain our collaborative efforts with Santa Barbara City College, UCSB, and the Isla Vista Community Services District to both educate the community and further enhance existing initiatives. 

6. Horticulture

It has been suggested that there is effective shrubbery that makes it harder for people to trespass where it is unsafe for them to be, due to thorns, prickles or other sharp characteristics. 

  • We are working with County Parks to explore the kinds of horticulture that can be planted that make it difficult to traverse. 
  • Once we have recommendations we will share this information with property owners for them to do the same.  

7. Memorial 

We support and envision a memorial for the 13 people who have died as a way to honor their life and serve as a powerful reminder for safety. 

  • Supervisor Capps is contacting the families to make sure they are comfortable with this idea.
  • We are looking for who might want to sponsor this memorial.

8. Enforcement 

Currently, law enforcement is not able to stop people from acting unsafely on the cliffs, such as breaking up a party where people are sitting on balcony fences.  They need a stronger ability to uphold safety. 

  • With the IVCSD, the Sheriff's office and the community we are working to strengthen the tools they have to prevent unsafe situations from escalating into dangerous situations. 
  • This work began in early 2023.

Alcohol and Drug Use Considerations

It is essential to acknowledge that alcohol and drug use have played roles in some of the cliff falls that have occurred in Isla Vista over the years. Efforts to address these issues have included ongoing education and awareness campaigns aimed at promoting responsible behavior and personal safety, particularly during events like Deltopia and other gatherings. The presence of alcohol and drug use underscores the importance of increasing safety measures that can effectively deter individuals from accessing precarious areas along the bluffs, even when under the influence. Education alone, while valuable, may not always be sufficient to prevent accidents, especially when impaired judgment is a factor.

Therefore, it remains imperative to proceed with the proposed eight point plan as an integral component of our community's commitment to awareness and increased safety. This proactive approach not only addresses immediate safety concerns but also complements ongoing educational efforts by providing an additional layer of protection to residents and visitors, regardless of their state of sobriety or awareness.

(More details, photos and videos will be added later today)

Article Topic Follows: Local Politics
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John Palminteri

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