The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors convened on Nov. 7 and unanimously passed Supervisor Laura Capps’ Isla Vista bluff safety plan.
Capps’ eight-step plan details proposed safety measures to ensure increased precaution be taken around the cliffs in I.V. The plan includes regulating fence heights, lighting, warning signs, cliff-side bathrooms, horticulture and promoting cliff safety education.
The proposed safety plan comes after the passing of Santa Barbara City College student and Ojai resident Benjamin ‘Benny’ Schurmer on the bluffs of I.V. during Labor Day weekend. Friends of the late Schurmer started a petition calling for safety in his name, culminating 11,000 signatures since its posting.
“This safety plan that our office has come up with isn’t the result of ideas that we have, it’s the result of ideas that the community has brought forward. Starting with a petition that Grace Wilson and her friend Luca started,” Capps said. “She started a petition with the simple request … asking for safety.”
Capps began and ended her presentation by honoring the 13 victims who have passed away from cliff accidents in I.V. since 1994. She cited the families of cliff fall victims as her inspiration behind advocating for cliff safety and commended them for turning their “sadness into advocacy.”
“Connecting with moms has been so meaningful. They’ve been blamed, they’ve had to deal with their pain quietly. And the courage that it takes to be here, to go back to the scene where their child died, I have no words,” Capps said.
Capps presented concerns on cliff safety enforcement and social ordinances that were brought to light by UCSB Associated Student (A.S.) senators during public comment at the Oct. 10 Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) meeting. Capps said those steps are being fleshed out and were therefore not included as a focus point during the Board of Supervisors meeting.
“I reached out to those specifically to explain why the enforcement piece in my plan is vague. Because I’m being deferential to a process that’s been ongoing prior to my involvement,” Capps said in an interview with the Nexus.
“There has been a working group in process … involving Isla Vista Community Service District, students, the I.V. Foot Patrol, who’ve been working on updating the social host ordinance. And so that enforcement piece is to just insert whatever outcome from that plan,” she continued.
The focus points at the meeting were raising fence heights from four to six feet, directing staff on increased cliff lighting, putting up warning signs and adding hostile horticulture options. Capps also introduced the approach of creating fee waivers to incentivize private property owners to build updated fences.
“The office of Supervisor Capps is proposing a permitting fee waiver which seeks to empower the directory of planning and development with the authority to waive permitting fees under certain circumstances, specifically for the installation or modification of fencing or railing on the Isla Vista bluffs,” Chief of Staff for the Office of Supervisor Capps, Chris Henson said.
A.S. is creating a memorial in honor of the victims of cliff falls, supported by the families of the victims in collaboration with IVCSD to garner community awareness on cliff safety.
“I don’t think it should come from the county — it coming from students is so appropriate … I mean, many of these folks knew Benny,” Capps said.
Additionally, Capps emphasized the importance of taking small steps to ensure bluff safety, such as raising fence heights — a solution directly informed by ocean-side property owners.
“Maybe people could hop over a six feet fence, I’m just saying let’s try to do what we can, and raising fence heights just simply two feet would probably deter most human beings from being able to hop over,” Capps said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Department Fire Chief Mark A. Hartwig reaffirmed the importance of the plan during public comment and voiced his support for increased safety measures to prevent not only deaths but cliff injuries as well.
“The proposed amendments to increase the fence heights to a uniform minimum of six feet along the Isla Vista bluffs are crucial in creating a more substantial barrier against cliff falls,” Hartwig said.
Fifth District Supervisor and Vice-Chair Steve Lavagnino expressed his full support for the plan.
“I look at this as like putting the seat belt on … to lose a view for a short amount of time as opposed to listening to the mothers and the friends that have talked about [losing] a loved one for the rest of your life. It really tips the scale so I’m in full support,” Lavagnino said.
The district has been attempting to tackle the issue of bluff safety for years, according to Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann. Although the plan was passed, Hartmann added that posting warnings on Del Playa leases is the next step.
“This is a process. When I was supervisor we put in fencing, we put in signs. We worked on lighting, we did education through orientation by UCSB, we had fire department go and put flyers on the Del Playa homes,” Hartmann said.
“I think the memorial will be a profoundly effective piece to educate people, but it is an ongoing matter, and we tried hard with the landlords on Del Playa that there be some notice in the leases to parents about the dangers, if their child was living there,” she continued.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Nov 9, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.