The Building & Safety Division of the County of Santa Barbara is hoping to implement a new cliff policy in Isla Vista — one that would raise the minimum threshold distance between the cliffside to the property line of Del Playa Drive houses.

The county’s new proposed policy would move the minimum distance to 15 feet. Angie Banks / Daily Nexus

The current policy requires that all 84 properties facing the ocean on Del Playa Drive be at least five feet away from the bluff, according to Massoud Abolhoda, manager of the division.

The county’s new proposed policy would move the minimum distance to 15 feet and require that “a building foundation should be evaluated when any portion of the building, foundations, or appurtenances, are within 15 feet of the bluff face,” according to the I.V. Bluffs Report released in March 2019.

The proposed changes to the I.V. Bluff Policy follow an instance in which 15 feet of the cliff between 6653 and 6663 Del Playa Drive collapsed in a short period in January 2017, according to the report. This collapse forced out 28 residents from the surrounding properties after a portion of the balcony crumbled off the cliff.

This “single-event failure” — an event where the most cliff erosion occurs in a single point in time, as opposed to erosion over time — exceeded the current requirement of five feet and “raised concern regarding the current policy for structure setbacks, which includes an assumption that a single bluff failure will be no more than five feet,” according to the report.

However, not all properties would be affected by the new proposal, Abolhoda noted.

Due to site-specific conditions of property, the threshold distance can be different for each property, depending on the type of foundation of the building, how close the building is to the property line and how close the south side of the building is to the cliff.

Property owners would be able to submit geotechnical evaluation reports to sidestep having to make renovations or cutbacks to the building, so long as the building meets the division’s requirements.

“Since we know that site-to-site situations can vary, we are asking that property owners hire a geotechnical engineer to evaluate their specific condition and let us know,” Abolhoda said. “[They can then] offer us a geotechnical report if they believe the 15 feet that would be the basis of our new policy is not really applicable.”

“Once we get that report, we get other geotechnical engineers to review it and see if it’s acceptable, and if it’s acceptable then the policy would be based on a single event that is going to happen in that specific site. That’s how our policies are being revised.”

Buildings with shallow foundations, about 24 to 32 inches deep, would be less likely to meet the division’s building safety requirements.  

Buildings with caisson foundations in good shape have a better chance of sliding by the new policy, but a “series of triggers” would be established to monitor the integrity of the foundation and the safety of the building over time. The triggers would designate points in erosion which would render the support structures ineffective and require property owners to address the conditions of the building at that time.

If a building is less than 15 feet from the bluff, the property would be placed on a watch list to be “monitored on a continuing basis for bluff retreat and building proximity,” according to the report. The property owners would also be notified.

“We can adjust our policy according to what is considered the most prevalent single-event failure that can be experienced on that site,” Abolhoda said.

If a building comes within 10 feet of the bluff, the property owner will be issued an official “Notice of Violation” and will be required to address the “noncompliant conditions.”

If nothing is done to address the threshold violation, the property owner would be fined and receive a “Notice of Non-Compliance,” according to the report.

In the event that a building  comes within five feet of the bluff, the property owner may be issued a “Notice and Order to Vacate Building and Abate.”

If it is determined that the property does not meet the safety threshold, the property owner has several options.  

The owner can “cut the building back a minimum of 30 feet,” but would also be allowed to do smaller cutbacks on a “case-by-case basis.”

They could also maintain the building in its current condition if a geotechnical engineering report proves the building is safe to live in. Property owners would still need a “monitoring and abatement plan” prepared by a civil or structural engineer.

A third option is foundation strengthening, which could also allow property owners to maintain the existing structure through the “underpinning of shallow foundations,” anchoring of existing foundations or other methods, according to the report. Property owners would need reports from geotechnical and structural engineers to oversee the modifications.

The building and safety division is holding a meeting with property owners on May 2 at the planning commission room on 123 E Anapamu Street to discuss concerns and “have a discussion about moving forward with new policy,” Abolhoda said.

“We are not rushing to this, and we want everyone to understand what we are asking, and we do not want to create a false panic,” Abolhoda said. “Safety is the primary reason for this change of policy.”

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