Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor and Vice-Chair of the Air Pollution Control District Board of Directors Laura Capps spoke with the Nexus about updates and implementation of her Isla Vista Bluff Safety Plan.
The newest developments to the eight-step safety plan, approved during the Nov. 7 Santa Barbara County (SBC) Board of Supervisors meeting, include further discussions with experts in lighting, horticulture and enforcement surrounding cliff safety. The plan’s most immediate goal — to raise fencing heights in Isla Vista from four to six feet for both private and public property — will be finalized next month, Capps said.
Capps’ office sent out letters explaining the process for installing new fences the day after the plan was passed, and has since been fielding calls from property owners in need of assistance in getting permits from the county and more.
“Fence heights are in the works, and construction’s beginning early February and should be done by the end of February,” Capps said. “Every property owner in Isla Vista got a letter from me explaining how they go through the process to get the fees waived in order to raise their fence height.”
The purpose of the plan is to promote safety around the bluffs in Isla Vista following an increased number of cliff-related deaths the past few years, the most recent tragedy occurring last Labor Day weekend with the passing of Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) student and Ojai resident Benjamin Schurmer.
“People who aren’t directly connected to Isla Vista care about Isla Vista, and they care about preventing such a tragic outcome of people actually falling off a cliff, and it’s really touched people,” Capps said. “So my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors definitely understood that when they voted unanimously to support the plan.”
In addition to the fence height being raised, the safety plan included the need for horticulture surrounding the fences that would deter people from approaching the cliff edges and hopping over the fences. Capps is adamant about incorporating plant species native to the I.V. biosphere.
“We’ve been working with the head of Santa Barbara County Parks to explore options and he already has a whole list of different types of shrubbery that the neighbors really suggested,” Capps said.
District Representative & Communications Director for the Office of Supervisor Capps Eleanor Gartner added that their hope is to turn the planting of said shrubbery into a community event.
“Once the time does come to do the planting, we are exploring options to do some kind of community planting effort to get everyone involved as well and put in some sweat equity from our end too,” Gartner said.
Another step in the safety plan is to implement light sources that would promote safety without hindering views of the coast. After working with the county to add solar powered lighting to warning signs around the bluffs, Capps is turning to local experts for further advice.
“We’ve met with lighting experts, including John Bowers from UCSB, who has that lighting lab and created Unite to Light. Anyway, he’s an expert on lighting, and so we’re looking at motion sensor lighting and installing those as soon as possible.”
Capps said one of the more necessary and more expensive precautions is the installation of bathrooms along the bluffs. Previously, Capps’ team has installed porta potties in Walter Capps Park, as well as along Del Playa in collaboration with the Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD). They are now working on finding the money to install more permanent restrooms and figuring out the logistics of utilities and plumbing.
“We have the porta-potties up, but we’re looking for more budget funding to actually have a permanent bathroom there which is, you know, millions of dollars, but extremely important. And actually, that’s a priority I’ve heard most from students …the need for bathrooms,” Capps said.
In terms of the education step of the plan to increase general knowledge of cliff safety habits, Capps said her office is working with SBCC to improve the cliff safety education given to students.
“Santa Barbara City College students are out in I.V. A lot of them live there. And so [we’re] working with them to make sure that they do the kind of educating that UCSB is doing. And as we know with education, it’s a constant because you get all these new students every term,” Capps said.
Capps generally emphasized collaboration on the community oriented safety measures with Isla Vista locals. Step seven of the safety plan is the creation of a memorial honoring the lives lost from cliff accidents while simultaneously educating the community about the perils of the I.V. bluffs. The memorial — which has full support from victims’ families — is currently in the hands of student leaders in order to be more reflective of the community.
“I think it’ll be more reflective of the tragedy if [the memorial] is designed by students, and so we’re giving it our full support but taking a backseat to the leadership on it,” Capps said.
The final step of the plan is the improved enforcement portion, which has faced the most criticism from community members and specifically Associated Students Senators during an Oct. 10 IVCSD meeting. Individuals expressed concerns regarding the lack of clarity surrounding the idea of enforcement and resistance to increased police presence around I.V.
Capps responded to this pushback by clarifying that improved enforcement would consist of loosening the limitations that police in I.V. currently abide by rather than increasing officers in I.V.
“I’ve really been deferential to the working group that came up with this enforcement update. And so I’m open minded,” Capps said. “What really resonated was definitely not adding more law enforcement, just … change it from previously: if there was a sexual assault reported at a party, it would have to take three sexual assaults for them to shut down the party, and now that’s been reduced to one.”
“It’s super important to add there’s no additional law enforcement. It’s just changing some of the limitations that they had to actually help people: when they were seeing a crisis unfold right before their eyes, like a sexual assault or somebody reporting 50 people on a tiny balcony, and not being able to actually provide that kind of warning to those folks,” Capps continued.
Capps expressed her determination in fast-tracking the approval of her plan with aid from the Board of Supervisors. She credits the quick turnaround from the plan’s point of formulation to the point of approval to “the overwhelming grief and concern felt by so many students and Isla Vista community members.”
“One of the reasons why I ran for supervisor and am grateful to have this position is because I believe government needs to be as responsive to the people as possible, especially in times like this when there’s true tragedy,” Capps said. “[Schurmer] unfortunately passed on September 2, and we announced this plan September 28, I believe, and we passed it in November.”
A version of this article appeared on p.4 of the Jan. 25, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.