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Santa Barbara County drafting new Isla Vista bluff erosion plan

Isla Vista bluff erosion
Buildings too close to the cliff and not deemed "safe" by an expert will have to be cut back or stabilized

ISLA VISTA, Calif. - Oceanfront property on the beautiful Isla Vista coastline comes with a cost: property owners must deal with constant bluff erosion, which can be accelerated by winter rainstorms.

Santa Barbara County has an erosion policy in place for the 84 cliffside properties on Del Playa Drive, but the County is now working on updating that policy to make bigger buffer zones between the properties and the cliff.

The current plan says that properties within 15 feet of the cliff must hire an engineering or seismic specialist to prove that the property is safe. If it is not, the property must be cut back or stabilized. Properties within five feet of the cliff receive a notice to vacate the area of the property closest to the cliff.

Under the new plan, those buffer zones would be increased to 20 feet and 10 feet, respectively. 

Twelve units are being monitored under the current plan. The County says the new plan's bigger buffer zone would require another 30 units to hire a specialist to make sure their land is safe. 

Cutting back properties away from the cliff is not unprecedented in Isla Vista.

“Over time, we have seen some properties do have to cut back away from the cliffs, depending on erosion,” Santa Barbara County Third District representative Gina Fischer said. 

The County estimates that the bluffs in Isla Vista retreat about six inches each year, but that a retreat of five feet at any given time is possible. 

“All Californians who live in coastal environments should be pretty well aware that these are living environments that move and change over time,” Fischer said. 

The properties are often houses or apartment buildings rented to UC Santa Barbara students, who are used to living so close to the edge of the bluff. 

“Houses are actually hanging off the cliff,” student Steven Hoot said. “And sometimes I look up from the beach down below to where I was just standing 30 minutes prior. And I was literally standing over nothing. Just my three inches of cement on my balcony.”

The county, though, says some properties closer to the edge may actually be safer than others with more of a buffer. 

“To the naked eye from the bluff, that may look alarming that the balcony’s over [the edge],” Fischer said. “But if they’ve been reinforced with caissons over time, then they likely could be safer… it’s really gonna depend on these expert studies.”

Experts and building upgrades can be very expensive investments for property owners, however. They are working with the County and expressing their concerns as the new bluff plan is finalized. 

The County says the new plan has no exact timetable yet but will likely go into effect in the next two months.

Environment / Safety

Ryan Fish

Ryan Fish is a reporter, sports anchor and forecaster at KEYT|KCOY|KKFX.