Amidst renewed conversations around cliff safety in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara County 2nd District Supervisor Laura Capps is supporting local efforts to amend the permitting process for blufftop fencing.
Sworn in on Dec. 6, 2022, Capps represents the 2nd District, which includes portions of the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, the unincorporated area of Isla Vista and UC Santa Barbara.
Capps is leading a county-level effort to amend the coastal zoning ordinance to require a coastal development permit rather than a minor conditional use permit for fences higher than six feet within 50 feet of a coastal bluff in Isla Vista.
“Our work reflects a firm belief that the bluffs pose a danger that deserves common-sense remedies,” Capps said in a statement to the Nexus.
Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) General Manager Jonathan Abboud said the requirement for a minor conditional use permit has deterred private property owners from increasing fence heights.
“That’s been an impediment that’s always been brought up in terms of higher fencing,” Abboud said at the Jan. 10 IVCSD board meeting. “The minor conditional use permit process is really cumbersome, and so that’s been a hindrance to getting better fencing in the private property areas.”
Prior to taking office, Capps took a walking tour of Isla Vista with members of IVCSD, where she heard from local officials on the “paramount” issue of coastal bluff safety.
“Unfortunately, there’s been a long history of cliff falls in the community and after hearing from the IVCSD, I feel all avenues should be explored including continued efforts on education, awareness and potentially higher fence heights,” Capps said in the statement.
Several people have died or injured themselves falling from the bluffs over the last two decades, including a man who sustained major injuries from a cliff fall in October 2022. A UCSB alumnus died after a fatal fall from an Isla Vista cliff in May 2022.
IVCSD issued their support of the county’s efforts in a letter to Capps at their Jan. 10 board meeting, in which they highlighted public safety concerns.
“Isla Vista has a long and tragic history of community members falling from coastal bluffs on private and public property, causing fatal or life changing injuries. We believe we must pursue every avenue possible to protect human life,” IVCSD President Marcos Aguilar said in the letter.
Capps said that her office plans to pursue changes to fencing alongside educational awareness efforts. IVCSD is currently working with partners at UCSB and the county to run an educational campaign for residents on coastal bluffs and safety around them.
“It comes down to safety — period. I believe it’s an additional tool in the tool box that should be explored — along with continued educational and awareness efforts, better lighting and increased signage,” Capps said in the statement. “It is a hope that this action builds a safer Isla Vista.”
IVCSD Director Spencer Brandt expressed his personal gratitude for the county’s attention to the longstanding issue of cliff safety.
“We have certain property owners that are trying to be a part of the solution, that are trying to put up fencing that is non scalable, that is higher, that have agreed to help put up signage to dissuade people from going near those cliffs, but they have not been able to because of the red tape,” Brandt said at the Jan. 10 meeting. “So, I’m really happy. I think the county understands these frustrations, and Supervisor Capps wants to be a champion to try to address these issues.”
Santa Barbara County Director of Planning & Development Lisa Plowman noted that local actors have begun discussion about increasing the height of required fencing, a change that her office would be involved in implementing.
However, Plowman said the California Coastal Commission — the agency empowered to make such a change — has voiced concerns about the aesthetic of taller fencing.
“It’s probably a good idea to have a discussion about it,” Plowman said. “There’s concerns about people being able to get over fencing, but the Coastal Commission has been reluctant to increase the height of fences substantially because they’re worried about the potential visual impacts from the coast.”
Capps recognized the lengthy process for achieving a change to the zoning ordinance.
“[T]he process with the Coastal Commission will take some time which is why there needs to be a continued effort on education and awareness as it relates to coastal bluff safety,” Capps said in the statement.
Brandt promoted the idea of high plexiglass fencing as an “aesthetically pleasing” solution that would allow for ocean views and has been used by property owners in other beachside communities, such as Dana Point in Orange County.
“It’s a material that’s not easily climbable or scalable, and it’s also the least intrusive aesthetically possible,” Brandt said. “I think there’s a lot of room for us to see what we can do to make it easier for property owners to be a part of the solution.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 3 of the Jan. 26, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.