Three properties on the 67 block of Del Playa Drive that did not receive warnings were evacuated despite several at-risk properties being warned ahead of the storm, as discussed at a Feb. 13 Board of Supervisors meeting. 

Buildings within 10 feet of the bluffs will receive a Notice to Vacate and are required to establish a maximum collapse width with a county-sponsored geotechnical engineer. Courtesy of SBC.

“They had remnants of a strong structure underneath it. It was my mistake,” Carl Lindberg, the Santa Barbara County building engineering inspector, said to the Isla Vista Community Services District (IVCSD) Board of Supervisors at the meeting. “I think they should have been included on the list.”

This followed record-breaking storms in the first week of February, prompting resident evacuations on the 67 block of Del Playa Drive, with one cliffside balcony collapsing. The county issued warnings on several Del Playa Drive properties due to the storm’s severity. 

Community members and government representatives discussed this incident in lieu of cliff safety during the town hall segment of the meeting, which commenced with a presentation on I.V. bluff policy, and was later opened for questioning. 

Lindberg said there was still a “substantial structure” underneath that kept the deck of an unlisted property from collapsing all the way down to the beach — hence why he didn’t include the properties in a list for at-risk properties. Less than 20% of properties are at-risk in I.V., Lindberg noted.

Santa Barbara County (SBC) Director of Planning & Development Lisa Plowman presented the history and progress of the Isla Vista Bluff Policy — an effort undertaken in 2023 by County Supervisor Laura Capps — per 12 cliff-related deaths since 1993. In November 2023, Capps’ new eight-step bluff safety plan passed in a unanimous board vote, proposing raised fence heights, increased lighting and warning signs, cliff-side bathrooms, horticulture and cliff-side safety education. 

Plowman began the presentation with a background on the structural development of the I.V. bluffs, beginning in 1928 with less than a dozen structures on Del Playa Drive to 2024 with approximately 84 structures currently on the bluffs.

The Isla Vista Bluff Policy was established in 2004 in collaboration with Cotton, Shires & Associates (CSA), an engineering and geology consulting firm, protecting cliffside residents from bluff erosion through established building code regulations. It was revised to include geotechnical report requirements in 2020 after a 2019 geotechnical evaluation conducted by CSA.

“The county contracted with Cotton Shires engineering firm to do a report on that, we took public comment on it and the policy was changed. That policy basically then said now we expect that there can be up to 10 feet of sloughing at any one time, and we had not previously seen that,” Plowman said.

The Bluff Policy stipulates to identify when properties near the bluff are at risk, conduct a geotechnical study if necessary and subsequently decide if a property needs to be set back or be engineered otherwise. 

“In some circumstances … we will require that the building be cut back if the geotechnical report comes back with that recommendation and we cut that building back we create a larger bluff setback. And, in some cases, there might be lateral supports that are developed that support the structure from the street out towards the bluffs,” Plowman said.

According to the policy, buildings with foundations 20 feet from the bluffs will receive a notice from the county requesting a geotechnical study be done on the property. Buildings within 15 feet will be sent a Notice of Violation (NOV) and are required to complete a geotechnical study specific to the site. Buildings within 10 feet will receive a Notice to Vacate and are required to establish a maximum collapse width as well, with a county-sponsored geotechnical engineer.

Two different state-officiated permits are required before any construction on cliffside properties may be conducted. Prior to planning, a Coastal Development Permit is required. A building permit must then be granted before construction to ensure all plans conform to the I.V. Bluff Policy’s Submittal Requirements and Permit Process. Emergency permits may be granted through an expedited process in cases of immediate danger such as a storm. 

As of February, 147 NOVs and 96 building permits have been issued.

Site inspections are conducted four times yearly to monitor the bluffs, according to Plowman. Photographs are typically taken from the oceanside during periods of low tide due to difficulties in obtaining permission for onsite inspections from property owners; SBC started capturing drone shots of the bluffs in partnership with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department in January 2023.

According to Plowman, in the event of storms and other major events such as earthquakes or high tides, further inspections will follow.

Since 2020, SBC has sent emails and door-to-door notices to individuals living in at-risk cliffside Del Playa Drive properties, warning them to stay away from the bluffs during periods of storms.

“We have done hundreds of field inspections and done a lot of reviews of the technical studies that we do get, and then we work with the landowner to implement those improvements that come from that study,” Plowman said.

Plowman concluded the bluff safety presentation by discussing measures taken to preserve specific properties along the bluffs following the recent storms. She said 6757 Del Playa Drive was vacated and is pending demolition after irrepressible storm damage, and 6625 Del Playa Drive has had cantilevered beams added as structural support to help mitigate erosion. 

The second half of the bluff discussion opened up to questions from the audience and board. 

IVCSD Director Jay Freeman asked how the plan included buildings that were damaged in the storm, to which Plowman noted that a property where a patio had collapsed was bolstered with new fencing and the rest of the patio was cut back to prevent further damage.

“If we see what we think is dangerous and there is potential to detach, we will have them cut it back,” Plowman said.

She explained that it is hard to predict which properties would need to be set back due to the unpredictable condition of the soil beneath these buildings, which can be affected by moisture levels. 

“Patios are cut back quite frequently, some property several times a year,” Lindberg added. 

IVCSD Vice President Carrie Topliffe raised concerns over the tenants not being aware if their properties had an NOV, as the communication goes between the landowner and the citing company. She also noted that the online information should be easily searchable. 

“This is all public information. It’s all available through our website,” Plowman answered. “But we don’t go out and reach out to tenants and explain what it is we’re doing with the landlord. We rely on the landowner to be communicating with their tenants.”

Topliffe added that due to the high tenant turnover in I.V., it’s important that renters are knowledgeable about their rights and bluff resources. 

IVCSD President Marcos Aguilar asked if drones could be used more frequently for site inspections as a safer alternative to human inspections. Plowman said she would be interested in working with the fire department on the idea. 

Tara Robinson, a UC Santa Barbara graduate who presented research on bluff erosion solutions at a 2023 IVCSD meeting, asked if the structural support of balconies is taken into consideration in geotechnical inspections.

Lindberg said certain properties are analyzed more closely, such as the “heavily engineered” oceanside properties with jutting balconies which are monitored every year by the Cotton, Shires & Associates group.

Furthermore, Plowman said most property owners have been compliant with the NOV. 

“Most planners don’t wanna get into that situation. They wanna cooperate. They got a lot of money invested in these properties and they wanna make sure they’re safe ’cause they want kids living in them,” Plowman said.

Capps asked if the volume of students on a balcony is taken into consideration and if “human behavior” is a variable considered in property assessments.

“I would think that there must be some limit. We’ve all seen examples of huge parties out in Isla Vista where uninvited guests can get out on these patios that can definitely create an overload situation that can make matters worse,” Lindberg said regarding the assessments.

Capps also emphasized that the balconies should make their capacity limit available not only to the tenants but to anyone on the property.  

“They’re designed for a very high level. But I agree it’s a legitimate concern,” SBC Building Official Craig Johnson said.

“The railings along the edge of the bluff are a concern if people are all pushing on that all the same time,” he continued. “I’ve seen pictures of the gatherings out there.

Capps and Plowman encouraged a maximum capacity limit to be posted on the balconies. 

I.V. resident Enrique José “Henry” Sarria raised concerns over how when new fences are drilled in during setbacks, fractures from drilling concrete to anchor the fence introduce score marks, which do not break linearly and can fracture into the fence.

“I personally feel that a lot of those buildings should be torn and built toward the street more,” Sarria said. 

Because of public transportation access, the availability of parking spaces isn’t necessary, Sarria said. However, the California Coastal Commission limits the removal of parking spaces, according to Plowman. 

Third-year history and political science double major and IVCSD Director Ela Schulz expressed discontent with communication between landowners and tenants. 

“I personally know a couple of the people who live at the property that just experienced the bluff collapse and there was a complete lack of communication between them and their landlord unless it’s facilitated by a third party,” Schulz said.

Aguilar closed the meeting with a recommendation for more events like the town hall between the county and IVCSD.

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Feb. 22, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Print

Lizzy Rager
Lizzy Rager (she/her) is the Assistant News Editor for the 2024-25 school year. She can be reached at lizzyrager@dailynexus.com
Anushka Ghosh Dastidar
Anushka Ghosh Dastidar (she/her) is the Community Outreach News Editor for the 2023-24 school year. Previously, Ghosh Dastidar was the Assistant News Editor for the 2022-2023 school year. She can be reached at anushkagd@dailynexus.com or news@dailynexus.com.