Is it safe to live on the Isla Vista bluffs?

Chunks of balcony and backyard at 6653 Del Playa fell away during a February storm. (County of Santa Barbara)

The storms that hit Southern California this winter wreaked havoc on parts of Santa Barbara’s coast. You can see it most clearly along Del Playa Drive in Isla Vista.

Over 20 Isla Vista residents were displaced in February after high surf took away parts of the cliff, and chunks of a balcony and backyard along with it.

According to Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development Department, nine buildings along Del Playa are now less than 15 feet away from the face of the bluff. Three properties are within five feet of the edge and deemed unsafe to live in.

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with UCSB earth science professors Ed Keller, who’s been studying cliff erosion along Del Playa. He also checked in with landlord James Gelb, whose property partially collapsed after this winter’s storms.

How dangerous is it?

According to Keller, it’s already critical. “I’d be worried because of the erosion rate,” he said. “When they built those apartments decades ago, they were quite a ways from the ocean. Given enough time, it’ll be at your doorstep.”

However, Gelb is less concerned. “I would feel safe living on any of those properties,” he said. “The county comes out. They make multiple inspections. They’re diligent about monitoring the bluffs.”

What are people doing?

Officials at the County of Santa Barbara’s Building and Safety department are well aware of the issue. Since 2002, they’ve been conducting annual walk-throughs to document any noticeable erosion.

According to Building and Safety Manager Massoud Abolhoda, there are three trigger points:

  • If a building’s foundation— not including the deck or patio —is within 15 feet of the bluff, county officials add the property to a watch list and send a notice advising the property owner to have an engineer observe the cliff’s erosional activity and assess the safety of the building.
  • If the foundation is within 10 feet of the bluff, that suggestion becomes a requirement.
  • If the foundation is within 5 feet of the bluff, inspectors will “red tag” the property, deeming it too dangerous for residents to live in. At this point, homeowners generally perform a cutback, a process that removes parts of building nearest to the cliff edge.

Is this common?

Gelb has had to cut back 15 of the 29 properties he owns along the ocean side of Del Playa Drive.

“I’ve always been proactive,” he said. “That’s the key. A lot of property owners aren’t proactive. They finally take their buildings in when they’re pressured by the county.”

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