Encinitas commissioners deny Beacon’s Beach staircase permit request


The latest, controversial plan to build a public staircase down the bluff to Beacon’s Beach was rejected by a divided city Planning Commission Thursday, Dec. 6, after hours of public testimony and much commission debate.

That may mean it’s back to the drawing board once again as the city continues its on-again, off-again, 15-year effort to come up with a workable plan to preserve public access to the popular beach, which is in a landslide-prone area just west of the 900 block of Neptune Avenue.

For decades, the beach has been accessed via a switchback, dirt trail down the coastal bluff. The rustic trail, which is posted with “Danger: Enter at Your Own Risk” signs, is beloved by people who live nearby. They say a big staircase wouldn’t fit with Leucadia’s funky, rustic look, while the dirt path connects visitors to the surrounding environment and is far more comfortable to traverse.

Years ago, city planners proposed building an erodible, sandy concrete buttress at the base of the bluff, and rebuilding the bluff along with the dirt trail, but that failed to find favor with state regulators. So, they’ve since been exploring designs for staircases that almost appear to float in front of the bluff on concrete pillars.

Last summer, commissioners voted 4-0 to reject staff’s first staircase proposal, saying they wanted something that didn’t look like a Las Vegas-style skywalk or a freeway onramp. In the months that followed, city employees hosted a series of community meetings and eventually settled on the redesign that commissioners reviewed Dec. 6 before a crowd of some 60 people.

In their 3-2 vote, with Chairman Glenn O’Grady and Commissioner Jody Hubbard opposed, the commissioners took the unusual step of denying the latest proposal for a design review permit on the grounds that the project shouldn’t have been before them at all that night.

It’s only been a few months since commissioners rejected the previous proposal and city planning regulations state that unless a project’s backers are submitting a vastly different redesign, they must wait a full year before submitting a new plan, Commissioner Bruce Ehlers said as he put forward the denial idea.

His proposal was immediately backed by Commissioner Al Apuzzo, who hadn’t attended the July meeting when the previous proposal was rejected but said he had reviewed both that plan and this new one.

“It doesn’t look that different to me,” he said.

Commissioner Kevin Doyle, who lives near Beacon’s Beach, said he liked the new version of the stairs far better than the old one, but agreed that it was essentially the same project as before -- a staircase -- thus a new design shouldn’t have been submitted until July 2019.

As it began to dawn on the many staircase opponents in the audience that the majority of the commissioners were likely to vote against the latest proposal, they erupted into applause.

While Apuzzo and Ehlers said the new design didn’t look that much different than the old one, the two commissioners who voted against denying the permit disagreed, as did city planner Roy Sapa’u, who said the new design called for using different materials and colors, and was less massive looking.

“I think it’s a big improvement,” Hubbard said.

Both Hubbard and O’Grady said there were limits on how many different ways you could design a staircase, saying they didn’t think it was fair to reject the latest proposal on the grounds that it was too similar to the previous one. O’Grady said the City Council had tasked the commission with making a decision on a particular staircase project, not on deciding whether there ought to be a staircase at all.

But Ehlers said that the Beacon’s trail is unique -- there’s nothing else like it in the region -- and it ought to be given priority for preservation. These staircase plans include wording saying the dirt trail would be maintained, but the question ought to be whether a staircase really is a good idea, he said. The area may be prone to landslides, but a dirt trail would be relatively easy to rebuild after the earth moves, he said. A staircase, even if it’s on special concrete pillars, will likely sustain damage and be much more costly to repair, he said.

While Doyle voted to reject the plans, he told the audience that he believed “the staircase was inevitable,” saying it may not be built now, but as coastal erosion continues it will be.

-- Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune