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Caught on the Wrong Side of the Tracks - DMB5 Goes Before the Coastal Commission for Review

  • For members of the public looking for ways to comment on the Del Mar Bluff Stabilization Phase 5 hearing at this week’s Coastal Commission meeting, click here.

The second busiest intercity rail corridor in the nation passes through 1.7 miles of perilously unstable bluffs in Del Mar. Three trains in this section of the ‘LOSSAN’ corridor have fallen to the beach since the tracks were put on the bluffs in 1910. SANDAG and many other stakeholders have long anticipated the need to stabilize the bluffs; since 2003, they’ve completed four bluff stabilization projects to prevent another accident.

SANDAG’s latest bluff stabilization project, dubbed Del Mar Bluffs Stabilization Project 5 (DMB5), comes on the heels of a partial bluff collapse in February 2021 that put the railroad within 10 feet of the bluff’s edge. On Wednesday, June 8, the public will get a chance to weigh in on this project when the California Coastal Commission considers whether or not this project is consistent with the Coastal Act at a public hearing in Del Mar (and on zoom).

SANDAG committed to track realignment by 2035 in its Regional Transportation Plan. Surfrider, the City of Del Mar, and many others have been calling for realignment for years and celebrate this formal commitment. Although realistically such an ambitious project may take longer, the expedient relocation of the railroad will convert nearly 2 miles of bluff and blufftop to public land and constitute a huge victory for one of San Diego County’s most popular stretches of sandy beach.

With proper planning for the future and a strong decision at Wednesday’s Coastal Commission hearing, Del Mar’s beaches will one day become wider, more resilient to sea level rise, and more accessible for the 2 million people who visit them each year. This is a day we all look forward to.

First, we must survive the implementation of DMB5 for the next 15-30 years.

Train wreck, January 1941. Photo courtesy Larry Brooks, DMVA Historical Committee

Partial bluff collapse, February 2021. Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

What is DMB5?

DMB5 is an engineering project designed to stabilize the tracks for up to 30 years while SANDAG pursues permanent track realignment. Before we go into details, Surfrider would like to recognize SANDAG for their transparency and willingness to work with the City of Del Mar and the Coastal Commission to reduce the impacts of this project. As much as everyone dislikes the need for this project, the original project renditions were even worse.

The current DMB5 project includes work on both the upper and lower portion of the bluff, designed to work in unison to keep the train tracks in place. On the upper bluff, SANDAG proposes the installation of 182 soldier piles, along with tieback anchors and lagging between the piles to hold up the bluff face. They also intend to carry out extensive drainage improvements to manage bluff erosion caused by runoff.

Along the beach (i.e. the lower bluff), SANDAG proposes approximately 2,500 feet continuous seawall on the beach, along with changes to the bluff slope and riprap backfill behind certain areas of the wall. Surfrider strongly opposes seawalls and other types of hard armoring due to their well documented beach-killing effects, and the lower bluff portion of this project is an especially hard pill to swallow. Once completed, this project will represent the largest seawall permitted at one time in San Diego County. While we never support seawalls, we acknowledge that SANDAG and the Coastal Commission have worked together to ensure the seawalls will be removed once train track realignment is complete. 

For a video presentation of SANDAG’s proposal, watch SANDAG’s May 25, 2022 presentation to Del Mar’s Design Review Board or tune into the Coastal Commission meeting on Wednesday June 8. This will also be presented to the Del Mar City Council on Monday June 6 (agenda and link will be posted here.)

soldier pile diagram
Soldier pile rendering. Source: Coastal Commission Staff Report

Seawall design. Source: Coastal Commission Staff Report

Surfrider's Position

SANDAG has made considerable attempts to scale back the impacts of their project on coastal resources and access, and Coastal Commission staff have recommended project approval with the addition of seven conditions to mitigate the project’s effects on the beach below (full Staff Report available HERE). These conditions include a seawall design that facilitates complete removal once realignment is achieved, as well as three considerable beach access improvements as mitigation for the large swath of beach that will be lost due to the seawalls. 

The public access improvements recommended (called ‘capital improvement projects’ in the staff report) include a designated railroad crossing at either 7th Street or 11th Street, one beach accessway from the bluff top to the beach below, and enhancements to the existing blufftop trail between 4th Street and Seagrove Park. These projects are designed to address the longstanding need for formal beach access in the project area.

We generally support these conditions. A summary of our most significant additional recommendations can be found below, along with our complete recommendation letter to the Coastal Commission which goes into much more detail.

Surfrider recommends that the Coastal Commission add the following 5 priority conditions to find project consistency with the Coastal Act:

  1. Include stronger language to require seawall removal once the realignment is complete or the rail is no longer operating.
  2. Clarify construction schedule and explain whether seawall construction can be delayed (based on sea level rise estimates) to limit the long-term impacts to beach erosion and access. 
  3. Construct a vertical beach access at both 7th and 11th street, not just at one location.
  4. Provide mitigation during the 7 or more year window in which the public access improvement projects may not be complete. These include public access projects at Torrey Pines State Beach. 
  5. Strengthen wetland mitigation, including by funding specific projects at Los Penasquitos Lagoon.

Read our full response, with suggested amendments, in our letter to the Coastal Commission.

While far from a perfect scenario, we believe that construction impacts must be minimized while public access mitigation is maximized. While the impacts to our coastline will be devastating, the benefit of this project is that it will facilitate improved coastal access, and most importantly, long-term managed retreat of critical infrastructure away from our coastline and the beaches we love.

Your Voice Matters

The Coastal Commission will hold its hearing on DMB5 on Wednesday, June 8 at the Hilton in Del Mar at 15575 Jimmy Durante Blvd. The meeting begins at 9am, but this item will likely be heard around 10am or later.

You can attend in person or follow along by watching the livestream. The agenda item is 7b.

Sign Up to Comment Verbally – Members of the public can comment in person or online. You can sign up to speak by clicking the ‘Submit Speaker Request’ button on this page and indicating whether you’d like to speak in person or via zoom on Item W7b. 

You must submit your request by 5 PM on Tuesday June 7 in order to speak virtually or to show a presentation as part of your in person comments on Wednesday. If you show up to the hearing in person on Wednesday but do not have presenter materials, you can also sign up to speak when you get to the meeting. 

Surfrider is confirming how much time speakers will have per comment but it is likely to be 2 minutes. We will update that info here before the meeting.