A plan to close public access to the La Jolla Children's Pool for five months each year for the next five years during the harbor seal pupping season was approved Thursday by the California Coastal Commission.
After an hours-long public hearing, the commission voted in favor of a San Diego local coastal plan amendment and coastal development permit allowing the seasonal closures -- from Dec. 15 through May 15 -- by a pair of unanimous votes.
The city had sought the approval to be permanently binding, but at the recommendation of Coastal Commission staff, the commissioners voted to approve the permit only for an initial five-year period.
Annual reports will provide assessments of the closure's success.
The debate on how to deal with the large harbor seal population that has in recent years made a regular colony on the beach, intended since 1931 for use by children, has led to numerous trial periods of various strategies.
The city has tried protecting the seals during pupping season using rope barricades and signs, but such efforts have largely failed in keeping distance between humans and the seals.
Coalitions have formed around the issue, aiming on one side to protect the seal colony and on the other to protect beach access rights and stipulations in the land trust that deeded the Children's Pool to the city 60 years before the seal colony arrived.
"In this case, I think sometimes opponents misread maximum access for absolute access," Commissioner Dayna Bochco said. "I think if more people would act reasonably, we wouldn't be here today."
Bochco added that the five-year limit provides time for opponents to figure out better ways to approach the problem of seal-human interaction and the safety concerns that come with it.
The situation around the Children's Pool is a unique one, she said, as the sea wall that created the protected environment attracting seals to the beach was man-made. As such, the approval won’t start a domino effect of allowing restrictions to state-protected beach access for the public, she said.
Many spoke in opposition to that assessment and in favor of it during the public hearing.
Though the local coastal plan amendment had already received approval from the San Diego City Council, Councilmembers Sherri Lightner and Ed Harris spoke against the plan. Many opponents built their arguments around the land trust from Ellen Browning Scripps that handed the pool over to the city, under the agreement that it would be maintained as a safe swimming space for children.
Scripps' gift and the land trust to the city was signed off by the state Legislature and governor in 1931.
Commissioner Robert Garcia said the state not only has the right but the duty to protect the seal population now that it has become part of the beach's ecology.
Commissioner Greg Cox, who also is a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said the situation is unfortunate in that a permanent condition of polluted water has taken hold, resulting from seal excrement that's unable to be cleared by ocean currents because of the sea wall.
"It was a tremendous gift," Cox said of the land and sea wall trust to the city. “And it wasn’t until sometime in the 1990s that the seals arrived. The fact that we have these conflicts now is unfortunate."
But he also said the conflicts are unavoidable and must be dealt with. The five-year plan doesn't solve the problem, he added, but it provides a spotlight on an "impaired body of water" that's meant for public use but now attracts seals, which are mainly at the beach in such numbers because of the very sea wall that's making the pollution worse.
"Who's more trainable, the seals or the public?" Cox asked. "At some point, we need to come up with a better solution -- a permanent solution."
Commissioner Martha McClure's request for the development permit to be conditioned on the city of San Diego performing a feasibility study on several items was included in the approval. She said her hope is that at the end of the five years the permit is valid, the city will come "front and center" with ideas for other permanent solutions.
The conditions hold that the city shall examine the feasibility of Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant beach access, examine water quality and determine any methods to improve it, and analyze the quality of sand and determine methods of improvement.