By Terry Rodgers
October 13, 2005

The state Coastal Commission yesterday approved a long-anticipated wetlands enhancement project for the San Dieguito River and adopted a controversial fee intended to compensate the public for the effects of a proposed sea wall in Solana Beach.

In an 11-0 vote, the commission ruled that the owners of the 36-unit Las Brisas condominiums must pay a mitigation fee of $271,658. The payment is a condition for receiving a permit to build a 120-foot-long, 35-foot-high sea wall to protect the bluff on the property’s western boundary from collapsing.

The charges include $22,977 to compensate the public for the loss of sand that would have eroded from the cliff and resupplied the beach had the wall not been constructed. The remainder of the payment is to offset the loss of public beach that would be occupied by the sea wall.

The mitigation fee is unusual in that the commission hired an economist, Philip King of San Francisco State University, to put a price on the public’s loss of recreational opportunities due to the narrowing of the beach.

Using a complex formula, King estimated the value of one person using the beach near Fletcher Cove at $6.81 per day.

The fee was calculated by multiplying the estimated number of beach users over 22 years – the projected lifespan of the sea wall – times the $6.81 value of one person’s day at the beach.

While the commission has charged a sand-loss fee for sea wall permits during the past decade, it has imposed the surcharge for loss of public recreational opportunities only once before.

In December 2004, the commission imposed a $5.3 million impact fee on the Ocean Harbor House project in Monterey, which sought a permit for a 400-foot-long sea wall. That fee is being challenged in court.

“I think the fee is ludicrous,” said Bob Trettin, a consultant representing the Las Brisas Homeowners Association.

Defending the fee, commissioner Pat Kruer of San Diego said: “It will stand the test of fairness and equity with anyone.”

Meanwhile, the commission voted 10-0 to approve a proposal to create 165 acres of new wetlands along the western end of the San Dieguito River and ensure the lagoon at the river’s mouth will have a permanent opening to the ocean.

A large portion of brush and native habitat will be cut down in December to prevent migratory birds from nesting along the western portion of the river, where extensive excavation will take place to create the new wetlands, said David W. Kay, Edison’s environmental projects manager.

Several Del Mar residents expressed concern that the permanent channel at the ocean may cause beach erosion.

As a safeguard, the commission agreed to have the beach monitored at seven points along the shoreline – two on the north side and five on the south side of the river. A five-member technical advisory panel will meet twice a year to review monitoring data and decide if the channel opening is causing problems.

Terry Rodgers: (619) 542-4566;