Controversy at the Cove
November 28, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized
It seems that San Diegans fall on one of two sides of the La Jolla children’s beach controversy. They either want the seals left alone — free to inhabit the beach — or they want them removed completely.
There is a lot of polarization because there is little room for compromise on the issue.
Casa Beach — more popularly known as children’s beach — was designed as a protected swimming area for kids. The Children’s Pool — as it was originally named — was dedicated by Ellen Browning Scripps “as a gratuity to children” back in 1931. As part of its construction, a barrier was built to shelter the cove from the tide, providing children with a safe place to wade in the ocean.
Starting in the 1970s, harbor seals began taking refuge behind the protective seawall, a man-made haven from the surrounding rocky bluff. In the late 1990s, many more seals began coming to Casa Beach to swim, sunbathe and breed during pupping season. Today an estimated 200 harbor seals call the beach home. There are now so many that Children’s Beach has become a local tourist attraction.
Because of the seals’ sensitive breeding tendencies, the beach was recognized as a natural harbor seal haulout and rookery site by the National Marine and Fisheries Service in 1999. This protects the seals from human interaction by federal law, under provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The MMPA, which passed in 1972, protects against any acts that result in a significant disruption of the seals’ natural behavior.
In 2004 swimmer Valerie O’Sullivan filed suit, charging that the seal refuge was not a permissible use for the cove under the state trust. O’Sullivan argued that by not maintaining the cove in its original condition, the city was in violation of the trust.
In 2005 now-retired Superior Court Judge William Pate agreed and ordered San Diego to restore the beach to its “pre-seal” condition. The order included dredging the beach to reduce high bacteria levels caused by seal excrement.
On May 22 San Diego County Superior Court Judge Yuri Hofmann reignited the controversy with an order to remove the seals and, in turn, restore the beach to a children’s pool as originally intended.
On June 1 U.S. District Court Judge William Hayes moved to prevent the city from removing the seal colony. The federal court had previously issued a restraining order, blocking the removal of the seals. This put questions to rest regarding whether the federal restrain was still in effect.
This back-and-forth between superior and federal court jurisdiction has been a mainstay of the controversy and has cost the city of San Diego hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills.
There is also concern surrounding the proposed seal removal, which is estimated to cost the city an additional $600,000 to $700,000 annually.
In Sacramento, Democratic state Sen. Christine Kehoe of San Diego sponsored Senate Bill 428, which would give City Council the authority to decide how to use the beach.
“This underscores our position since February of this year that the solution to this dilemma is through state legislation that allows the city to decide the use of this beach ,” reads a statement from the San Diego City Attorney’s Office. “We believe it is prudent to put all litigation on hold pending the state of California’s action, as owner of this beach, to change the terms of the trust.”
Hoffman ruled again on July 20 that state law requires the beach be kept clean for children under Scripps’ original trust. However, hours after the court order to disperse the seals was issued, Gov. Schwarzenegger intervened and signed SB 428, which had already passed both the state Senate and the Assembly.
On July 23 Hoffman delayed the order to remove the seals, minutes before the expiration of a deadline that would have required city officials to begin their dispersal. Hoffmann has refused to dismiss the removal order, but has effectively put it on hold until an Oct. 6 hearing to decide if the new bill supersedes his previous court orders and the 2005 verdict.
Despite its passage, SB 428 doesn’t take effect until January, leaving the seals’ fate in the air.