December 4, 2018 5:02 AM ET
About 150 steps from John Imperato’s Southern California home, pavement gives way to an ever-shrinking stretch of soft sand.
Imperato lives in Del Mar, a small, affluent town just north of San Diego. He spent his life savings to live here. He wanted to raise his son like he grew up, withing walking distance of the sea.
Del Mar is a picturesque place; its name means “of the sea,” in Spanish.
That’s becoming increasingly true.
Del Mar is one of countless coastal communities in California and across the U.S. that is seeing the impacts of climate change and preparing for worse to come.
By midcentury, tens of millions of U.S. homes and billions of dollars of property are likely to be destroyed or made unusable by increased flooding from rising seas and storms, according to a recent climate report by the U.S. government.
“Sea level rise and storm surge could completely erode two-thirds of southern California beaches by 2100,” the report warns.
That leaves residents of seaside towns like Del Mar with an alarming choice: stay and fight those impacts, or turn and leave.
Del Mar has been having that discussion for years. The city is a national leader in that regard. But it also provides a good example of just how difficult and precarious even planning for sea level rise can be.
“The feel-good here is gone,” Imperato says, standing outside of his home. “I thought they were going to bury me here, but if someone offered [to buy my house], I’d take it. I’d walk away.”
‘When the sea walls go, we go’
In 2015, Del Mar created a committee, consisting primarily of residents, to help identify the city’s biggest vulnerabilities to increased flooding and to come up with a plan on how best to address them.
They got grants from the state’s coastal commission and worked with paid consultants.
The findings were grim.
Del Mar’s walkable beach — a huge draw for the town’s 3 million annual visitors — could disappear by 2050.
Sea levels here are projected to rise 1 to 2 feet by 2050, and as much as 5 1/2 by 2100, according to scientific projections used by the city.
The homes in Imperato’s low-lying neighborhood faced a double whammy.
Beach erosion and sea level rise are likely to increase flooding during high-tide events and storms, threatening to overwhelm a long line of private sea walls that line the beach.
“When those sea walls go, we go,” Imperato, who served on the committee, says.
Increased precipitation from storm events, another expected result of climate change, may also bring more river flooding. The mouth of the San Dieguito River sits just north of Imperato’s neighborhood.
Knowing the risks, a few years ago, the city moved into the next phase of planning: how to adapt.
There are three broad adaptation strategies communities should look at, according to guidance policies provided by the California Coastal Commission, a state agency tasked with oversight of California’s coasts.
The first is protection — the creation of of sea walls or other armoring to defend coastal developments.
The second is accommodation — modifying buildings or developments to accommodate increased flooding. That includes changing zoning or elevating structures.
The final option is the one nobody wants — an option that homeowners like Imperato describe as “the kiss of death.”
‘Not feasible here in Del Mar’
Retreating from sea level rise can take different forms. It can mean changing zoning to limit construction in flood-prone areas. It can also mean removing or relocating development from vulnerable areas, using buyout programs or transferring property rights.
Some communities in California are embracing the idea.
At first, Del Mar was looking at it, too.
The blowback, though, was almost immediate. Realtors’ groups spoke out against the plan. Homeowners were hysterical.
“What we learned from our community is that even the mere discussion of managed retreat, in the minds of some, completely devalues their property,” says Amanda Lee, Del Mar’s senior city planner.
The concern was that if the city formalized a plan that included retreat, it would be harder for property owners to get loans or sell their land.
Hearing those concerns, “we started crossing out managed retreat and replacing it with other words like ‘not feasible here in Del Mar’,” says Terry Gaasterland, who chaired the city’s Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee.
The city council even went as far as to pass a resolution banning future city councils from planning for retreat.
There were practical reasons for the decision, Gaasterland says. The median home value in Del Mar is about $2.5 million, according to the real estate market app Zillow.
One oceanfront house in Imperato’s neighborhood is listed for sale for $24 million.
“In Del Mar, market value of all the properties in the managed retreat zone is estimated at $1.5 billion,” Gaasterland says. “Who’s going to pay for that? Certainly not the city of Del Mar.”