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Community demands better safety along Isla Vista cliffs

ISLA VISTA, Calif. – From grieving mothers to students who live along the bluffs, there is a renewed demand for better safety along the cliffs in Isla Vista.

Over the past 30 years, 13 people have died falling from the cliffs. Santa Barbara City College student Benjamin "Benny" Schurmer is the latest victim to fall to his death. Schurmer's family said the 19-year-old jumped over a fence near Walter Capps Park during Labor Day weekend to relieve himself before falling off the eroding cliff.

The former Mayor of Irvine has been urging the County of Santa Barbara to improve the safety along the cliffs for students since her son, Noah Krom, died in 2009.

"They almost seem to rely on the fact that those populations will cycle out every four years and that nobody will remember the last time somebody fell," said Beth Krom. "I can assure you that Noah's death was forgotten a long time ago ... and that's hard."

Erin Murphey, the owner of Playa Life IV properties, said for the last 20 years, property owners along the cliffs have been urging the county to make sensible adjustments to the fencing height regulations and allow for sea walls that would create a gradual slope instead of a dangerous drop.

"They hide behind the Coastal Commission quite frequently and say, 'Oh, we can't do anything with them' with regard to the height of fencing," said Murphey.

Currently the county's Coastal Zone Ordinance restricts fence heights near the bluff to six feet. Murphey says some property owners were fined almost $1,000 a day when they put up higher fencing along their properties.

According to the California Coastal Commission's website, the Coastal Act requires that local governments develop Local Coastal Programs (LCPs) (consisting of Land Use Plans and Implementing ordinances) to carry out policies of the California Coastal Act at the local level. Once certified by the Coastal Commission as consistent with and adequate to carry out the Coastal Act, responsibility for issuance of most Coastal Development Permits under the certified LCP is delegated to the local government. The Commission retains some continuing permit and appeal jurisdiction following LCP certification, and responsibility to certify any amendments to the LCP.

Cedar Birdsall who lives in one of Murphey's properties on the bluff along Del Playa Drive said he is worried about erosion and the effects the upcoming winter storm will have on the cliffs.

"Am I going to lose another half my patio in the ocean?" said Birdsall.

"We need to begin thinking about the safety of buildings and development along the cliff, because it's going to continue to erode and erode at an accelerating rate," said Charles Lester, Director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy at UC Santa Barbara and former executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Latest projections from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests the sea level may rise six feet by 2100.

An interactive tool on Our Coast, Our Future's website shows what the Isla Vista cliffs could look like if the sea level rises by six feet. Our Coast, Our Future is a partnership between local, state, and federal groups including the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

The red show what the cliff retreat could look along the Isla Vista Cliffs if the sea level rises by 5.7 feet along the California Coast. (Our Coast, Our Future)

"I don't think those existing apartment buildings right now will be there because I just don't think it's going to be feasible to maintain them in that place given sea level rise and what we expect to happen," said Lester.

The county has an Isla Vista Bluff Policy to mitigate hazards posed by erosion on buildings along Del Playa Drive. The policy was developed in 2004 and has benchmarks for action based on the distance from a structure to the bluff face. The policy was updated in 2020 following a geological study to examine the maximum retreat of the bluff in a single event.

"[The Department of Planning & Development] has been working diligently with property owners in Isla Vista to ensure that structures are adequately set back from the bluff top. And when they're not, what we do is require them to bring those structures into conformance with the current policy," said Lisa Plowman, Director of Planning & Development at the County of Santa Barbara.

The revised Bluff Policy requires property owners to conduct a site specific geotechnical study by a qualified engineering geologist if their structure is 15 to 20 feet from the bluff top. The Isla Vista bluff was recently inspected from the ocean side by county building inspectors in July, according to Plowman.

The Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) hopes to create a working group with all parties involved with the Isla Vista cliffs to improve safety.

"I hope the working group just cuts through the bureaucracy that there is from having so many government agencies and gets us all to unite on a common goal and get things done," said Jonathan Abboud, General Manager of the IVCSD.

So far, the county has fixed the fencing that was eroding into the ocean at Walter Capps Park. IVCSD has budgeted $15,000 for portable restrooms along Del Playa Drive. Several portable bathrooms have been placed along Del Playa Drive in hopes that students won't urinate off the cliffs.

"Wonder why the deaths of our children were not sufficient to mobilize action," said Krom. "These are human beings living up there and they shouldn't have to use porta-potties."

Krom and Murphey said they have asked for bathrooms to be installed in the area for years, but Krom said the portable bathrooms are a good first step.

"What happens is everybody kicks the can until another one of these tragic falls happens and then it is spoken of again and then it typically fades away and nothing is done with regards to actually changing policy," said Murphey.

Laura Capps, Santa Barbara County Supervisor representing Isla Vista, said she is working with county staff to look into other ways to increase safety along the cliffs.

"Many people have been working on bluff safety," said Capps. "I'm committed to doing everything we can to prevent this kind of accident from happening."

Capps tells News Channel that she has had several meetings with staff since Schurmer's death.

Article Topic Follows: Safety
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