Hundreds of Imperial Beach residents showed up to a land-use workshop Wednesday night to tell their city council they are opposed to the city using eminent domain to take ocean-affected property and give them to the rising sea and estuary waters.
Social media plus local news and politics websites have been awash with alarm over the sea level rise strategy people thought the city adopted. Some residents believe the city’s option of managed retreat – abandoning homes and buildings to the ocean rising waters – includes the city taking those homes and buildings by force of eminent domain.
“Please remove eminent domain and managed retreat from the plan,” said Mitch McKay. “We don’t want it on the table, we don’t want it on the books. We want it gone.”
McKay was one of dozens of citizens who live in the low-lying beach town where rising sea levels –demonstrated in storms in the last three years that flooded onto city streets near the Tijuana River National Estuary Reserve and along the seacoast – are a concern.
But city officials say they never committed to using eminent domain to take homes threatened by the waters that surround south Seacoast Drive and the eastern edge of the estuary. In fact, according to city councilmember Ed Spriggs, neither the words "eminent domain" nor the concept are in any plans.
“People just made things up and decided it’s what they have to fight and it just isn’t true,” said Mayor Serge Dedina. “We’re trying to update our general plan and we have people who are very upset about something that isn’t true.”
Even so, city council members and people from two city committees listened to hours of comments and criticism over the use of eminent domain. No decisions were planned for or made at the Wednesday night workshop.
In 2016, the city accepted a report on how rising oceans will affect IB in the next 100 years. The city council voted to accept the report and began studying alternatives to preserve and protect the areas of the city most vulnerable. Managed retreat – condemning homes and backing away while a new coastline is created by the ocean – was one of the options in the report, as were containment strategies including armoring the coast against the ocean.
The council hasn’t approved any of the strategies. But residents worry about what the city council will decide to do now that it’s dominated by three members whose groups – two from Wildcoast and one from the Surfrider Foundation – oppose armoring and embrace managed retreat as part of a natural solution to rising sea levels.
Surfrider, for example, has repeatedly and successfully fought coastal armoring projects in Encinitas and Solana Beach at the California Coastal Commission and in the courts.
“It’s real easy for the government to take your property,” said Richard Amos. “There’s a majority on the city council that can ram anything through the city they want to.”
In the past three years, two new hotels have been built next to the beach – while the city looks at how much the ocean will rise.
“IB does not have the funds for managed retreat,” said resident Bill Whitaker, who estimated costs of taking water-affected properties at $150 million. “Why would we allow two big hotels to come in and then sign up for managed retreat?”
The hotels have been a welcome addition to the area’s relatively stagnant revenues, which Dedina immediately sought to shore up after he was elected.
The city is in the process of updating its land-use plan and the forum was set up to be a conversation about land use and zoning changes that include questions about how tall new buildings can be and what people can do in them – for example, commercial uses and how many residences on each lot.
But social media whipped up worries about the city taking waterfront and water-affected homes.
“We’re going to have to do something, but eminent domain was not included in the plans at all,” Dedina said. “But we didn’t even get to take a good look at the issues for the general plan update we need to think about.”
Dedina says he’d like to see the update to the general plan include a healthy community component and more specific ways to attain Climate Action Plan goals, and of course, clean water issues.
“We should be able to record and take credit for all the mitigation effects of the estuary that is within the city boundaries,” he said, talking about emerging science that has discovered and is beginning to quantify how much natural assets like soils and plants can reduce the effects of the emissions driving climate change.
In the meantime, Dedina said he is committed to keeping the conversation with his community about land use and climate change going.
“We are going to keep communicating,” he said. “We have real issues to address.”